Wild Dog River

Chapter Twenty-six – The Wall


For three days the rain scarcely let up; a torrential downpour that cleaned the prison grime from the very air, and filled my heart with a mixture of excitement and trembling fear.

During the worst of the downpour, we did no outside work at all. On the fourth day, in withering showers, the gardening crew were issued with raincoats and sent out on clean-up duty. Branches and leaves had fallen from the small shrubs that were permitted to grow between the circle block and the walls, and rain had washed mulch and soil from garden beds across paths. The work fitted in well with my plans.

I knew that the sentry tower guards changed at four pm. The two screws would usually share a quick smoke on changeover, laughing and back slapping. My plan was to attempt my escape while they were distracted. I’d picked a spot on the wall some fifty yards from them, towards the unguarded north-western corner, just shy of where the slope made the wall too high to attempt. The bricks were somewhat degraded there, and the divots would help with foot and hand holds when the time came. There was also an iron pipe at the base that would be useful.

We were sweeping paths under the direction of a screw in a raincoat that was much more substantial than ours – a dark blue robe that hung to his knees. He had drawn the hood close around his face that his eyes seemed to glow through the shadows cast by that vinyl shroud.

A couple of the prisoners were complaining about being made to work in the rain.

‘The Chief can see that it’s bloody raining,’ said the screw.  ‘If he wants us to stop, he’ll send someone out to tell us.’ He rolled his wrist to look at his watch. ‘It’s ten past three – we’re knocking off at four-thirty anyhow.’

I asked if I could go to the open tool shed, situated between B Wing and the walls, to get a shovel to help clear a spot where soil covered the concrete to a depth of several inches. I saw Chiz, hearing my words, stop his work. The last thing I needed was interest from him at this stage, so I gave him what I hoped would pass for a neutral smile. 

At a nod from the screw, I left the gang, accompanied by a trusty called Jack. No maximum-security prisoner was allowed to walk to the tool shed alone. We took the concrete path past the Dorm, where most of the Murri prisoners were housed. Outside the tool shed, in the shelter of the eaves, I offered Jack a cigarette I’d saved from the sharks, who were always at me after the weekly buy-up. I left him outside smoking. He was a good man. We’d followed this routine many times in the last few weeks. He saw nothing, and heard nothing, just smoked his cigarette and kept his mouth shut.

The tool shed had a concrete floor, and walls of timber slabs. It was dark with cracks of light. Buried beneath a pile of gunny sacks in a corner was a bundle made of strips of woollen blanket. Each night of the week before the rain, I had cut four or five of these strips with the sharp point of my ring-pull screwdriver, each around five inches wide, and six feet long.

In the mornings I had folded the remnants of my blanket cleverly to make it look whole, then shoved the strips into my underwear and brought them here. My blanket had yielded up forty feet of strips, fastened together with reef knots. Hopefully it would be enough to go right over the wall and to the ground on the other side.

My ‘rope’ now ready, I took a rake from the rack. I removed the head using the screwdriver, then laid it on top of the pile. I got another rake and again removed the head. Now I tied both rake heads to the end of the blanket rope and tested for firmness. Sweating now, and my hands still slick from the rain, I covered my creations with a couple of sacks, grabbed the shovel I had used as an excuse to visit the garden shed, and collected Jack.

Back working on the paths, my hair and face soaking wet, I had no way of knowing the time, and asking the screw again would only create suspicion. Without being able to tell when four pm came around I had to watch for the relieving guard to leave the officer’s mess and walk towards the tower. That would be my cue.

The rain was getting heavier, making our efforts so pointless that I was worried they would cancel the work and send us back to the wings. My nerves were so frayed that I worked like a Trojan. Next to the lacklustre efforts of the others I must have stood out, for Chiz was not the only one who stared at me.  Even the hooded screw gave me a funny look, and I backed off.

Two prison officers appeared – Jackson and Slowacki – from the direction of the Chief Warden’s office. I saw them from a distance and froze. They were coming this way. I had been expecting, in recent days, another invitation from the Superintendent. Another attempt at intimidation and probable assault. Were these bastards coming for me now?  

I made a snap decision to bring forward my timetable. The rain was now so heavy that it would help to hide my movements. I called to the screw that I needed to piss and headed in for the pedestals at the back of the open Yard 12. As soon I was out of sight, I began to walk very fast – running would attract attention – and diverted towards the tool shed. It was the longest walk of my life. Each step was like a ticking clock. Finally I broke into a jog.

Throwing the tool shed door open, I headed inside and grabbed my makeshift grapnel and rope. I was halfway out the door when Chiz appeared, sopping wet and red faced.

‘So what the bloody hell are you doing?’ he asked, his eyes moving to my rake grapnel and makeshift rope.

I did not try to hide my intention. ‘Get out of my way.’

‘Like hell,’ he said, then entered the shed and made a lunge for me. He was a big, solid man, with shoulders to match that broad head of his. I pivoted to the right and swung at his shoulder with the combined rake heads, not hard enough to knock him off his feet, but sufficient to send him stumbling.

I followed through with another blow, this time smashing as hard as I could into his chest, with my body weight behind the charge. He lost his balance, falling sideways against a rack of tools.

While he bellowed with rage, and tried to regain his feet, I ran for the door and closed it behind me, slamming the locking bolt across and sealing him inside. Then, with all the speed I could manage, abandoning all caution, I sprinted for my chosen place on the wall, hoping like mad that the screw in the sentry tower was unable to see me in the heavy rain, or that he was looking another way.

Up close the wall looked so formidable and tall that I wondered at how I had been arrogant enough to think that I could conquer it. From far behind me I could hear Chiz hammering and yelling from the tool shed, and then more shouts. I guessed that it was Jackson and Slowacki coming to find me.

Buzzing with adrenaline I swung the rake grapnel underhand and into the air, putting everything I had into the throw. It almost cleared the wall but not quite, bumping the bricks at the last minute and falling back. Even as I regathered my ‘rope’, trying to loop it calmly, I heard running feet and more shouts.

I knew that the general run officers were armed with Smith and Wesson .38 revolvers. These were short range weapons – not as great a danger as the Armalite rifles carried by the men in the central tower and the sentry boxes.

Again, I threw my grapnel. This time it sailed over the wall with a yard or two to spare. I let it fall all the way to the ground on the other side. I pulled and it seemed to grip. The glass at the top, I’d reasoned, would help my blanket rope to hold, but whether it might also cut it through I was about to find out. I tied the end off to the iron pipe at the base of the wall.

Even with the sounds of men closing in on me growing through the rain, I allowed myself the luxury of steeling myself for a second or two. I flashed back to basic training and the obstacle course – a fifteen-foot-high timber wall equipped with a knotted rope. This wall was higher, but the blanket strips were also knotted. Taking a firm hold, I pushed myself up and braced my legs against the bricks.

I started to climb, feet against the wall. This is not as easy as it sounds, but my body was light and my arms were strong. I was halfway up before the general alarm sounded – a whooping siren that must have been audible across Townsville. My efforts redoubled, knowing that now they might start shooting.

My rake grapnel slipped, and I dropped back at least a yard, but I did not let it break the rhythm of my climb. The shouts were almost constant now, mingling with the rising and falling wail of the siren. A bullet struck the wall a couple of yards along, showering me with fragments of brick and mortar.

‘Prisoner, get down from there!’ someone shouted, maybe the Chief Warden, and this was followed by a flurry of gunfire that passed close to my ears, spraying me with chips and fragments of brick. I told myself that the rain was my friend. It made weapons handling and sighting difficult, I knew that from monsoon days spent patrolling the plantations around Tan Ru.  

I reached the top of the wall unscathed, but the ‘rope’ had stuck to the broken glass that was embedded there. In view of at least two towers I had to kneel, lean over, and grip my ‘rope’ safely past the cutting teeth of the broken glass.

Now, on the other side, I was protected from gunfire. It was a giddy moment, and mingled blood and rain was running into my eyes. Still, my hands felt as strong as steel claws as I shimmied down the rope, bouncing off the wall with the spring of my legs like an abseiler.

Reaching the ground, I knew that I would be again in sight of the sentry tower and wasted no time. I put my trust in the strength of my legs, and the speed of my run, sprinting like a madman towards the creek gully, shrouded by riverine trees.

Another shot came, but the rain was swallowing me up, and the angle from the sentry tower would mean that the guard could not rest his rifle securely, but would have to lean over, and fire offhand. I consoled myself with the knowledge of how difficult it is to fire a rifle accurately from a standing position, particularly in moments of stress, and at acute angles. I’ve seen it at the range. The average soldier, on foot and in a hurry, is doing well to hit a car body at more than a hundred yards. I was now at least that distance away, deep into the rain.  

Still, I did not slow down or falter, just ran on, even when a bullet parted my hair just above my left ear. That was the killing shot and they’d missed. Whoever it was had done well to get near me and I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t happen again.

Eight hundred yards. Two four-hundred-yard races. I’d run them back in the day in good time. Probably only six hundred to go now. Three or four minutes if the terrain didn’t slow me down. They’d be looking to get into vehicles now, and calling the cops. Every passing moment worked in their favour. Not mine.

The ground sloped down towards the creek now, and I was nearly stuffed from the speed of the run, lungs burning and the muscles of my legs turning rubbery. I forced control of every limb.

I could hear the flooded creek now, and the ground turned to mush beneath my feet. Into the trees, round a bend and there’s the spot. Jesus the creek was high, and I didn’t have to look for the boat – it was floating already, half full of water, tethered by a long rope; a solid aluminium dinghy with a Johnson 25 hanging off the transom.  

Inside, there was an esky floating in the water, along with a sunken bucket. I bailed like a bastard, my breath heaving in my chest. Still able to hear the escape siren I took four-gallon scoops of water and chucked them over as fast as my arms would move. There were still four or five inches swilling around the bottom as I untied the painter from the cleat on the bow.

I pushed forward into the stream, thigh-deep water, and lowered the outboard leg. I primed the bulb with half a dozen pumps, opened the choke and pulled the starter. A burst of blue smoke from the engine then it stalled. Choke off and another pull and the engine caught, pushing out more smoke and crying a sound that sounded, in my ears, like freedom.

I jumped aboard from the side and used the tiller-steer to take her into the widest channel between the tops of partially-drowned saplings and creek shrubs, throttling downstream in the pouring rain. I had a headache from the exertion and the adrenaline that filled my system. At full tilt I hammered into that already flowing stream, and guns were, for that moment, no longer the greatest danger. The slightest mistake with the steering and I knew that I would strike a bank or tree.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

Read previous chapters here.

#wilddogriver #serialstory #booklover

More books and stories are available from the Ozbookstore