Wild Dog River

Chapter Twenty-four – A Decision

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

From then on, it seemed, the General Run officers went out of their way to make my life uncomfortable. I knew that the smooth but dishonest Superintendent was behind these changes – punishing me for not cooperating with his dreams of getting rich. He was trying to force me back to his office on my knees.

The opening salvo of this campaign was a bucket of water chucked through the cell door and onto my cot in the early hours of the morning, when the wing was still in lock-away. I was already sweating, and the water was tepid. I stripped and tried to dry myself, but had no choice but to return to the sodden bed.

The screws sent Joseph in after breakfast with a mop. He stood, regarding the puddle on the floor under my mattress with a serious face. ‘I’ve seen some fellas piss themselves in this wing before,’ he said, ‘but not like that, brother.’

Three nights later it happened again, then the following night. On one occasion I thought I heard soft laughter before the door clanged shut, but I never gave the mongrels the benefit of crying out or complaining, just lay there with wet sheets twisted around my body, hating them with everything I had.

With this, and the heat and humidity, the night hours were a torment. I began to believe that some kind of old evil dwelt in the prison itself, in the very foundations of a place that was made by men to bury other men behind foot-thick walls. A place with a soundtrack of clanging iron that echoed through the place – an outcrop of Hades reaching to the surface to claim souls and condemn them to a life that is not a life – behind bars that were like the web of some giant spider. My tired mind conjured the head of the dragon rising from the water that puddled under my cot. I saw terror in the architecture of the buildings, the cruelty of the screws and the bully tactics of some prisoners – the ones who seemed to thrive here. I was gripped by a terrible certainty that I would not survive thirty-seven more years in custody.

At some point in those dark hours, I can’t remember exactly when, I started to toy with the idea of taking the chance of freedom into my own hands. Of not waiting. To risk a bullet in the back and an early grave.

My mind was playing games at that stage, perhaps an attempt to counter the hatred that was growing inside me like a boil. I knew the Stewart’s Creek area well, had roamed over it as a kid, for my family had lived here in Townsville until my thirteenth year, at which time we moved to Cairns. I knew that from the south-western tip of the gaol it was only three or four hundred yards to the closest bend of the creek. I could sprint that distance in a minute or two. Far quicker than the screws could organise vehicles or get out of the gates to follow on foot.

I used those sleepless hours to calculate distance and time, and to grapple with the most difficult aspect of the idea – getting over the wall – and figuring out the best and least observable time and place to do it.  

The perfect scenario would be getting work at the prison farm – which was outside the walls. This was as unlikely a dream as sprouting wings and flying away to freedom. Farm work needed a ‘low’ classo, and earning that kind of level of trust was years away. I was not prepared to wait more than a few weeks.

There had been escapes in the past – I’d heard other inmates talking about them. Way back before the second World War a couple of long-timers sawed through their bars with a smuggled hacksaw blade, then dropped to the ground using tied-together clothing. Their method of scaling the main wall was not discovered, and neither were they – the pair were never heard of again. Another prisoner made good his escape by hiding in a cart load of rubbish, though he was recaptured a few days later.

Plenty of low classo prisoners had run off, usually from the farm or, in one man’s  case, from his job of tending the Super’s private garden. There was even a prisoner who served out his term and was released one morning, only to return in the afternoon with a rifle. His intention was to spring his mates from the gaol, initiating an hour-long gunfight with the warders in the tower and walls in the process.

***

Eight days after my visit to the Superintendent, my brother Dave, and Mum, were waiting for me in the visiting room. Mum was holding a paper bag – no doubt containing the messy remains of a cake after it had been probed right through by screws looking for contraband. Once this was on the table, we exchanged the brief hug that was permitted by the rules and sat down in the hard chairs provided.

Like always Mum’s hair was neatly brushed and pinned, and there wasn’t a stitch of her clothing out of place. She had never been physically strong, but now she seemed frail, and her hand shook when she reached over the table and placed her palm over my knuckles.

I told myself that she was looking tired from the drive down from Cairns. At least, I guessed, she’d stay at Dave’s place for a night or two.  

‘Are you alright, son?’ she asked.

I choked up at first and couldn’t answer. Then, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’ I forced a smile and lied, ‘It’s no worse than the army.’

‘I wrote to Mr Katter,’ she said. ‘And the Attorney General, but I haven’t heard back yet. I told them that you’re a returned soldier and that you’ve been wrongly sentenced.  I’m trying for you, son.’

Dave chimed in, ‘And we’re working with the solicitor on the possibility of an appeal. Things are looking good.’

I knew they weren’t and so did he. Dave never could tell a lie without giving himself away.

The screw was hovering close, and for a few minutes we made small talk about the grinding heat and the humidity, then Dave’s cricket team for which he kept wicket every week, with the stickiest gloves in the comp.  

When the screw had walked off, I lowered my voice. ‘Have you found anything out about the medal?’ Enlisting Dave as a research assistant had been a long shot – and the drawing I had made for him of the relic I’d bought from the kid at the Wild Dog camp wasn’t much to go on, but it was all we had.

‘A little,’ he said. ‘One of the chicks at work’s old man is a mad keen historian. He reckons that it’s odds-on to be Chinese – probably not from one of the Tongs like you said but. The Tongs were like clubs that all the coolies belonged to. They were based on the different regions of each of the Chinese groups that came out to the Palmer River rush up north. He says that it’s more likely something to do with crime gangs – Triads. He’s doing some research and he’s going to get back to me.’

I leaned back in the chair, ‘That’s a good start.’

Mum wasn’t listening, and my eyes kept flicking to her as her lips drooped lower and lower. Finally she started crying.

‘Aw Christ Mum,’ I said.

Once she started, however, she couldn’t stop, and Dave had to get up and take her out, through to the bathroom in the waiting area.

While they were gone, I couldn’t bloody help it. Sitting there alone at the table my own eyes started to water. It was just so unfair. I had put up with Chiz and his mates, stand over men, the interview with the Superintendent, lascivious invitations from sex-crazed middle-aged men and night-time incursions to my cell by screws with buckets.

But to break my own mother’s heart was the worst thing I could think of doing.

Dave came back alone and sat down. ‘Mum just needs a minute. She’ll be back.’

When next I spoke, my own words shocked me. These were half formed thoughts that could not yet be called a plan, but the need to get out of here had seized me and would not let go.

‘I’ve got a huge favour to ask,’ I said. ‘You know that spot on the creek where you killed a big bloody king brown snake, when I was about eleven?’

Dave narrowed his eyes, and his voice became wary. He knew how my mind worked. ‘Yeah mate, I remember it.’

‘I want you to get me a tinny and outboard, hide it as well as you can, above the flood level. Ten gallons of fuel, a change of clothes and some tucker.’

Dave’s voice sounded like an engine with a cracked piston. ‘You’re an idiot.’

I made the final decision right there and then. I was not going to wait thirty-seven years in this shithole, at the mercy of the Superintendent, and the Wild Dog people.

‘Can you blame me?’ I growled back. ‘I’m going to find out who the hell fitted me up for those killings and why. You think I can last in here until I’m sixty years old?’

The screw came close again. We waited ‘til he moved on. Dave spoke, ‘Stewart’s Creek is near bone-dry.’

‘It is right now. The rains will come soon. The water will rise.’

‘I could go to gaol for helping you. Mum would love that, wouldn’t she?’

‘You won’t go to jail, because I’ll get out and prove I didn’t do anything. And how can it be any worse for Mum than everyone she knows thinking her son is a double murderer?’  

Dave was not convinced, ‘The creek is one thing, but how are you going to get out of here? There are walls, in case you haven’t noticed.’

‘I don’t know yet,’ I admitted. ‘Will you get me the boat?’

Dave shrugged, ‘Yeah. I’ll do it. You know I will.’

Mum appeared at the door, looking more composed, but her eyes were like glass that was on the verge of breaking. I smiled at her, and she managed to briefly raise the corners of her lips in return. I wanted to hold her and protect her, but most of all I wanted to make her proud of me again.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

Read past chapters here.

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