Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirteen – Dave

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

On the second day they sent me out to work on yard detail, which was interesting because at least it was varied. There were seven or eight of us in the gang and our first job was cutting the tops off 44-gallon drums with cold chisels and five-pound club hammers. These were destined to be painted and used as rubbish bins. After that we filled some potholes in an access road, shovelling gravel into wheelbarrows.

The young bloke who had apparently tried to run down a cop was in the same detail. His name was Dale, not one of the brightest blokes I’ve come across, but he was friendly enough. The work was good for me – I sweated out the last remnants of the drugs those mongrels on the Steber had given me, and it kept my hands busy.

After another roll call and lunch it was back to the exercise yard, and I’d barely been there an hour when I was called out for another visitor.

I knew it would be Dave, and as I walked with the warder, I felt my limbs tremble with excitement. Even just the fact that he had come here was enough to make the walls seem not so high, and the future not so dark.

I’d liked school, and did OK until first or second form of high school, but after the old man died I lost interest. I wagged every second day, and treated home like a hotel. It was my brother Dave who got me back on track, sat me on my arse and told me who I was hurting and how. He told me how we’d all lost the old man, not just me, and that mum was grieving the hardest. I should be helping her to cope, not adding to the burden.

I pulled my head in, especially at home, and tried a little harder at school. Dave meant that much to me, that a few words were enough. Dave was always my hero, my number one fishing mate and the one I told my darkest secrets to – the girls I secretly liked, and things I’d done or said that filled me with shame.

The thought of seeing him today had me wiping tears from my eyes as I followed the screw to the visiting room and there he was, standing on the other side of the bench with a wide but nervous smile. We shook hands, and I tried not to cry like a kid. He’d brought a lemon cake that his wife Suzie had made for me, with fifty tiny holes in the pale-yellow icing, courtesy of the screws who used knitting needles to check for illicit inserts. To go with it he’d got two cans of coke from the machine in the waiting room, and we popped the tops, drank, and sat them on the bench.

Dave was five years older than me, with dark hair that fell in waves over his ears, and eyes that missed very little. He wore dark blue King Gee shorts and shirt, and Baxter boots. He’d put on weight since I saw him last. His jawline was more rounded and his trunk a little thicker. He took my hand and squeezed. His mechanic’s hand was like a rock.

‘We’re going to get you out of here,’ he said.

I believed him. It was like I was five years old again, and the Miller brothers had cornered me down behind the merry-go-round at the park, and there was Dave, walking across the grass towards us. ‘Oi,’ he’d call, and they’d run like rabbits before he got near them.

We both sat down, and he leaned towards me. ‘What the hell happened?’

I wasn’t sure how much time we had, but I started from the beginning. From getting the assignment, to the voyage up to the Wild Dog River, the camp of itinerants and self-styled rebels, then the Murri boy with the bronze disk. Nolan and his rifle waving us down from the riverbank and the fight in the Cooktown park. While I told the story memories and images flashed before my eyes like I had recorded them with a camera. There was a tremor in my voice when I came to the part off Hope Island when we had been tricked into stopping, and that hard man we’d faced off with in Cooktown shot down the skipper and deckhand as if they were feral pigs or mad dogs and left me to take the blame.

Dave listened in silence, but when I’d finished, he shook his head in slow motion. ‘Jesus Christ. The bastards. You’ve seen the new lawyer, haven’t you, and told him all this?’

‘Yeah, but I dunno if he believed me.’

Dave’s face had reddened, and I could tell he was riled. ‘I’ll go see him. He’ll start believing you, or we’ll get someone else.’

I hugged my chest desperately. There was something in my brother’s anger that made me feel more optimistic, but I had something else to ask of him. ‘Can you find something out for me?’

‘Anything to help. What?’

‘Whoever did this. I know they wanted that old medallion I bought from the kid. What I don’t know is why.’ I stopped and asked the screw for a pencil and paper from a supply they kept on a desk. He must have been one of the good ones because he brought it right over – a school HB and lined notepaper, slightly crumpled. Then, with Dave’s breathing heavy across the bench, I began to draw – something I’d always been pretty good at.

‘What the hell is it?’ Dave asked when I’d finished.

‘It’s a Tong symbol, a dragon – that’s what was on the medallion. It might date back to the Palmer gold rush days. Someone’s got my camera, probably the cops, and there’s a photo on it – that’d be even better but I don’t like your chances of getting hold of it.’

‘I’ll try,’ said Dave.

I went on, ‘The Wild Dog people killed Owen and Tom to get at it. It would be good to find out what that symbol represents – what particular Tong is it, for a start, and why it might be important.’

‘Where would I look?’

‘Library, museums, newspaper archives maybe. Can you do it?’

Dave shrugged, ‘Of course I will, anything mate.’

‘Don’t tell Susie, alright?’

‘Why not?’

I didn’t answer at first. Dave’s wife was a strange chick. I wouldn’t put it past her to start some investigations on her own account. ‘The less she knows the less she can talk about,’ was all I said.

One of the screws stepped forward, and pointed to the wall clock with his forefinger. ‘Time’s up boys.’

Dave folded the paper with its drawing of the Tong dragon, and put it in his pocket. Then he reached out and gripped my hand again, firm and hard. ‘I’ll be back again tomorrow, and Mum’s coming too,’ he said. ‘It’s been a shock for her. For all of us.’

A shock, yes, I thought to myself as I watched him go. But at least I no longer felt so alone.

Read the rest of the story so far here.

©2023 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday.

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