Wild Dog River

Chapter Twenty-seven – Four Bridges


As a child I had roamed the banks of that creek. Dave and I had fished for barra and mangrove jack, skipped stones, made hiding places and raced sticks when the flow was strong enough to carry them. We’d kissed girls in hidden groves, and had fist fights with school yard enemies that began and ended by our own rules.

The creek was a playground, a hiding place for things we should not have had. Dave and I cemented our brotherhood here. And with this boat he had put his whole world at risk for me. My hand was wet on the tiller handle, twisting the throttle to maximum revolutions. The outboard howled, and with the rain stinging my eyes, I threaded the tinnie around drowned treetops, stumps and half-submerged signs. I passed a couple of guys standing around a Toyota on the bank. They stared but I ignored them. By the time they told anyone I would be long gone, I was making fifteen knots most of the time, and the current was moving at another two or three.

I knew the rock bars, I knew where the old trees lay lurking. The water was high, but I could see places where danger waited below the surface. The map of the creek in my brain allowed me to estimate how much water covered hazards that could wreck the prop, or at least break a shear pin.

I cut things much finer than I would have done in the past, even when I was fifteen and bulletproof. Time had become as fluid as the waterway beneath me. Probably only ten or fifteen minutes had passed since I had left the prison but it felt like a lifetime. Like being born again.

Up ahead I saw the highway bridge, with the current pushing and swirling against the pylons. This structure was a familiar sight, with its white-painted rail. A road train was in the process of crossing, followed by a couple of Holden cars and a ute, and that sight brought home to me the fact that I was back out into the world, away from the walls that, after a while, seemed to enclose a complete universe.

The highway bridge could be tricky, because flood debris sometimes built up between the pylons. I slowed down, and let go of the tiller handle while I pulled my shirt over my head. It was a little cold, in the rain, but no one would look twice at a bloke in a tinny with his shirt off. Prison grey stood out.

Checking ahead that the way under the bridge was clear, I gunned the engine again, passing under the tunnel with its brief cessation of the rain, and stink of bird and bat droppings. When I reached the other side I reckoned that I had two and a half miles until I reached open water. There were three more bridges, two on Southern Port Road and one on the racecourse road.  I guessed that the cops were already on their way to those points.

Still, with the rain on my bare chest I let out a laugh, then a whoop. From then on there were no houses, no nothing, just floodplain, trees and a few fences. The Johnson outboard was not missing a beat. Dave had outdone himself with this one, and while I knew that the wide-open-throttle run was burning through the fuel, I could moderate the usage when things became less urgent.

I slowed for the first Port Road bridge, checking again for any logs or other crap wedged against the flow. Nothing. I opened up the throttle.

The plain was wide now, and I could see along the road. Then, through the drifting rain I saw three cop cars in a line, lights flashing. I was surely pushing thirty knots, but they were travelling at twice that speed.

My premature excitement was replaced by dread. If they got me now I’d be back in gaol in an hour, probably getting another beating from those bastard screws, then segro for weeks on end. That thought drained the blood from my beating heart. I could not go back. Not ever.

The mangroves started, and I knew I was getting closer to the relative freedom of the bay. Just one more bridge and they would never stop me.

The bridge, as I neared it, brought bad news. I saw the flashing blue lights, strobing through the rain. There were cop cars parked on the bank on either side of the creek and another that looked like an XC Falcon on the bridge itself. Even in the rain I could see rifles trained on me.

I jinked the tiller handle and the tinny moved like a stepping footballer, just as I saw the puff of smoke from one of the rifles and felt the impact of a bullet into the aluminium hull. A second shot passed somewhere nearby.

I jinked again then straightened up for the run between the pylons, knowing that if I got through this it was barely half a mile to go, without a road or man-made barrier of any kind. I hadn’t prayed for a long time, but I did it now, making silent promises with the rain running down my hair and face, onto my bare chest.

I reached the bridge, and I saw as I reached it that there was a floating drum just under the water surface. I tried to slow, dropped the throttle back, but then I hit with the bow, the hull skipping up and over. The outboard leg struck with a massive thump and clang. The lower unit broke clean off, and the powerhead screamed with all resistance removed.

The boat veered sideways and struck a pylon, tumbling me overboard, into the tepid water. I was no real swimmer, but I kept myself afloat with a crazy dog-paddle that I knew from experience would soon tire me out. The current swiftly pulled me out the other side of the bridge, and I knew that the cops and their rifles would be scrambling over the road above to bear fire on me.

As I careered downstream I saw something floating in the water ahead. The esky from the boat. I splashed frantically towards it, and gripped it gratefully, easing the strain on my arms.

A geyser of spray erupted from a bullet striking the water surface near my head, but surely the current would pull me out of range soon. Another gunshot and I took a deep breath, still holding onto the esky. I ducked almost fully under the water.

Something stung on my shoulder but even so I stayed under until my lungs were bursting, maybe a minute or more, finally raising my head to see that I was a good five hundred yards downstream from the bridge. My shoulder, however, was oozing blood. I explored the wound with the fingers of my other hand. It seemed that a bullet had gouged a channel through my flesh.

I tried not to think about the salt-water crocs of which there were a few in this part of the creek, for croc-shooters did not operate so close to the city, even in those days. I wondered if I was riding the current fast enough to evade them. Forlorn hope! Those ancient reptiles could swim like torpedoes when they needed to.

I heard the roar of V8 engines and saw that the cops had left the road and were trying to follow me on the rough track that skirted the mangroves.

The lead vehicle was struggling, mud spraying from the rear tyres. No teenager in Townsville would be daft enough to try to drive across the flood plain in weather like this.

As I watched the cars became bogged, engines screaming now, and even though they couldn’t see me I raised a finger and shouted, ‘Bastards! Get a real job.’

Now the floodwaters carried me around a bend and into the main estuary channel. The mangroves thickened, the creek broadened, and the water changed colour, for the tide was pushing up against the floodwaters.

Again, I pressed one hand to the wound on my shoulder, blood seeping from between my fingers. I saw the first croc come down a channel of mud between the mangroves and enter the water.

He was a monster of a thing, scaled and gnarled, a head that would blunt an axe. His grand tail swept from side to side in a lazy beat as he entered the water.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

Read earlier chapters here.

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