Wild Dog River

Chapter Twenty-nine – Rise

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

Feeling momentarily safe from pursuit, or at least confident that no cop or screw could have trailed me through those hidden underground places, I slumped to the ground and rested. While a dingo or feral cat would have licked its wounds, I could only probe at them with my fingers, and fight the weakness caused by loss of blood and fatigue.

My body’s efforts to counteract the pain and trauma gave me a strange feeling of contentedness, and a reluctance to move. The rain was scarcely more than a light shower now, and being cold without a shirt I craved the warm and salty water of the harbour.

Getting to my feet took a while; a couple of false starts before I could take my first step down from that sandy rise and into the mangroves where the moon and the starlight guided me, along with the sound of angry storm wavelets striking the shore nearby. Finally, mud turned to sand under my feet, and I paused to untie my sandshoes and let the fine grains caress my soles. I was still spooked from my encounter with the croc, and too wary of sharks to enter the harbour waters at night, but it was close to low tide now, and when I emerged from the mangroves there were, across the sandy littoral, puddles and pools left behind which would be safe enough. Reaching one of the smaller pools, I stripped off my trousers and sat naked in the water, feeling the rejuvenating warmth reaching my chest, enjoying how the salt stung in my wounds. I rubbed at them, cleaning away the bloody clots, wincing and gritting my teeth with pain.

I had to fight not to let myself pass back into unconsciousness, in case I drowned in the shallow water. It was the fear of men in uniforms and the flashing blue lights I had seen that drove me to my feet, pulling on my prison trousers and shoes, then walking along the sand on a northerly heading.

Staying focussed was difficult, and the worst of my wounds were still open. Even in the moonlight I could see how blood ran all the way down to my feet. How much had I lost? I was struggling to think of what to do next. Entering Townsville in such a state was not an option, and the Ross River, in flood, stood between me and the city.

The effort of walking was becoming too much for me, and memories of the croc attack were playing on my nerves – every splash out on the sandflats gave me a fright, and one of my thighs was locking up. White spots floated in and out of my vision, and the sound of a dog barking distantly pushed a needle of terror in my spine.

Something up ahead, out to the right on the flats, was shining in the moonlight. At first I ignored it, guessing that it was just a trick of my tired mind. I would not have deviated but for a strong feeling of recognition. My feet sloshed through the shallow water as I walked towards it.

I was just a few paces away when I recognised the esky Dave had left in the boat for me – that I had dropped when fleeing from the croc. The tide had turned and flushed it down the creek to the harbour, where the breeze and current had pushed it onto shore.

Still unbelieving, I leaned over and picked up the esky by the rope handle, looking around in a sudden worry that my good fortune might be interrupted by the arrival of a search party on foot. I saw nothing, not yet, but I hurried away from the water with my prize, nonetheless.

At a good distance up the bank, I opened the esky. Inside was an oilskin bag, fastened with a tied cord. Dave’s knots were always neat, and I untied this one in the dark without fuss. Safe and dry inside was a pair of jeans, shoes, shirt and hat. Also, a safety razor and some soap. A first aid kit, bandages, and a comb. A folded sheet of writing that I could not read in the dark. There was a small wad of money fastened with a rubber band. I counted it. Five hundred bucks. That was probably two or three weeks wages for Dave. I didn’t want to think of the scrimping, the doing without, that was behind the cash, but a tear came into my eye at the thought. 

There was a bottle of water and a package of Anzac biscuits, no doubt baked by Dave’s wife, Susie. I ate five, cramming them into my mouth and pouring water in after them. Not satiated, but determined to be careful, I slipped the remainder back inside the oilskin.

Laboriously, with shaking hands, I dressed my wounds. Pouring iodine into each one, and bandaging them up took precious time, but I was determined to counteract the toxins that I knew were associated with crocodile bites. My shoulder wound was the hardest to dress properly, and it took a big square of Elastoplast to cover it. Finally, I pressed four Disprin tablets from their foil packet and chased them down with a good swig of water.

Not wanting to dirty my clean clothes until it was necessary, I again donned my prison trousers, my mind moving ahead, considering the options. At least I had some, thanks to Dave, but the choice I made now was critical. I considered trying to swim the flooded river – the quickest route into town – and trying to steal a car, but I was no thief. I’d never done anything like that, and the swim would be a major – possibly fatal – challenge.

Stealing a boat from the creek near the port might be easier, but the sea was seriously disturbed from the low-pressure system that had dropped so much rain. It was moving on, there was no doubt about that, but taking a small boat around Cape Pallarenda would be suicidal, and it was unlikely I’d have fuel for a long distance voyage. There was, I decided, a better way.

With my oilskin bag hanging around one shoulder, I turned away from the harbour, striking west through the mangroves. These extended for only a few hundred yards here, hugging the bay, and I soon reached waterlogged scrub, thankful for the half-moon and stars that allowed me to pick out the pandanus, tea-tree and grevilleas before I blundered into them.

Yet the Ross River flowed just to the north of me, and the heavy rain had raised it from its bed. There were tentacles and arms of its brown floodwaters in all directions and at unexpected times. Often I found myself sloshing through knee deep water, gritting my teeth with the fear of what might be lurking under the surface.

Even the salt pans that I remembered as being dry and hard were partially covered over, and more often than not I had to force my aching legs through water to my knees. I was trying to guess the time – maybe one a.m. – and knew that I would have to walk four or five miles before my destination was in sight. The rain stopped completely, and this was a blessing and a curse. It made me vulnerable to observation, particularly if the cops had night vision equipment, and I stuck to cover as much as possible.

I was aware that even in dry conditions, small river arms, some very deep, wound across this plain, and I watched ahead for the telltale sign of thick mangroves. Each time I kept my distance, by deviating to the south, avoiding any crossings of great depth, and slowly the scrub became drier.

I did see more blue lights and vehicle beams, moving along tracks and roads both distant and near, but I was now far from any trail that I knew. My battle right then was within myself, to continue to place one foot in front of the other and carry on.

Keeping my direction was easy, for apart from the Southern Cross, the Australian navigator’s best friend, the lights of Townsville filled the northern sky on the other side of the river. It was strangely beautiful, this meeting of stars, moon and artificial light, and I was struck by the preciousness of life itself, having come so close to losing mine.

Finally, I saw the railway line ahead, sweeping up from the south. There was no fence, and the access was clear. I turned northwards, onto a rough vehicle track that ran parallel to the line.  

Half a mile later I came to the railway bridge over the high and swiftly flowing river. This, like many bridges, offered me a place of privacy and shelter. I carried my bag to the space underneath, removed my trousers, let myself dry as best as I could, then dressed in the jeans and shirt Dave had left for me. I took off my shoes and cleaned them by thumping them on some discarded ballast. I combed my hair and repacked the bag, before replacing my shoes on my feet and heading up to the line. My only way across the river was by walking over that bridge, and I prayed that a train would not come.

At every step, high up over the river, I felt the fear of being exposed, and I walked not on the rails, but the sleepers, all old and slick from rain and mould. The strain on my body was immense. Still, I covered the distance in good time, and on the other side I did not descend, but remained on the tracks. I had at least another mile to walk, through urban areas now. Reaching cover before dawn was crucial. My clothes might help me to pass muster at night, but not so much in daylight.

I began to count my steps, keeping tabs on my progress, looking out on Queens Road as I passed, the Railway Estate school on my right. It was easier here, walking on the ballast of dolomite, and although I was still bleeding in several places, the bandages were helping to keep it under control.

There was a faint tinge of light in the sky, testament to the coming dawn, as I crossed a smaller bridge over the creek. Heading into Flinders Street, I left the tracks to lurk in the shadows. To my right I saw the dramatic red brick railway station, with its arches and old European styling. There were two cop cars out the front, and a couple of uniformed men talking near the ticket entrance.  

I walked left, not right, away from the station, keeping to the shadows when a vehicle or early morning stroller went past. As I reached the goods yard, I saw what I wanted to see – a big loco humming with restrained power, dozens of soot-stained cars up behind, and the smell of diesel overpowering. Best of all, the goods train was pointed north – the direction in which I needed to go.

I’d loved steam trains in my younger days, and missed the whistle and puff of smoke against the backdrop of Castle Hill. The diesel locomotives had no romance, but that’s not what I was here for tonight. I had to get out of town, fast, and the roads would surely be blocked by now. I ran up to the side of one of the goods cars, saw that it was loaded down with huge reels of fencing wire, and walked on.

The next car was enclosed, but with the main door open, stacked with pallets and boxes. With two hands on the floor of the car, I raised my aching body up, and crawled in as deep as I could, burrowing into the free space between a pallet and a wooden crate. I waited there, trying not to lose my nerve, my body enlivened by the faint vibration transmitted via the iron couplings from the locomotive.

I saw a torch beam and heard footsteps. Two men walking along, shining the beam into the cars. I froze as they reached my car and the beam played around above and around me.

‘They reckon he got taken by a croc,’ said one of the men. ‘But there’s no body so the brass will keep us up all night going through the motions.’

‘Poor bastard,’ said the other. ‘I bet he wished he’d stayed in the jug.’

With a sound that reminded me of prison life, the men closed the doors of the car. They passed on, and presently I heard the guard’s shout. Air brakes hissed and the vibration from the loco increased in frequency. Now the train slid into motion.

After a while I sat up and raised my head. By then the first glare of daylight was filtering into the carriage.

I saw something chalked on the wall of the carriage. It read:

Rise up against the corrupt regime.

It seemed a fitting motto, as I kept my head down, the iron wheels taking me back to the north. Towards the Wild Dog River and its secrets.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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