Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-three – Railway Cars, Sugar Cane, and Hot Meat Pies

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

Jumping from a moving train isn’t easy, even for an uninjured man. For me it was an ordeal. The train was running slowly, between rows of cut sugar cane just north of Gordonvale. I limped to the door, and dragged it open, trying to will strength into my aching limbs and torso, swollen in a dozen places where I’d suffered wounds from both a bullet and the croc attack that now seemed like a hallucination, if it weren’t for the places where its teeth had sheared into my flesh.

With the oilskin bag of supplies in my hands I waited until the loco slowed for a noticeable slope. I threw the bag out first, then jumped, hitting the ground hard. I rolled and felt a shooting pain in my lower back and shoulder. The pain took my breath away, and I lay for a long time trying to recover enough movement to walk.

Coming to my feet at last, and collecting my bag, I stared at my surroundings. The cane had been cut a month or so before, leaving short and stubby regrowth, with the remnants of old burned leaves scattered around. Sugar cane is a grass, and it is harvested, not killed each year, with the same plants lasting for two or three seasons before replanting.

Looking further afield I could see a farmhouse to the east, and a line of scrub that seemed to indicate a creek. I could not stay where I was. The sun would soon punish the hell out of me, and I was exposed to all eyes here. The creek was my best bet, and I forced my body into motion.

The walk went slowly at first; my knees and thighs had locked up. Pain from my wounds came in sharp stabbing attacks and I was constantly on the edge of vertigo. Still, I forced myself on, sometimes tripping on the regrowth and stumbling.

I stayed close to the tracks at first, for the raised ballast offered the only cover on that plain of sugar, but after a while there was a small shed that I kept between myself and the farmhouse. The walk to the creek line seemed like an eternity, but it was probably only a quarter hour before I stumbled into a gully of pandanus and wattle scrub, punching on in until I felt safe. At that point I sat down, turned to one side, and fell asleep.

What crazy dreams slid in and out of my tired mind over the following hours, while the sun climbed in the sky. The moving shadows meant that I suffered periods in the sun, when the heat built until I was sweating like a sausage in a lunch box.

I woke to the sound of shouts. In my unconscious mind it was the sound of prison guards, and my body flinched. But when I raised my head I came back to myself. The shouting man was nearby somewhere, and I realised that he was calling for his dog.

I sat up in time to hear the rush of paws in the scrub.  Panting breath, a flash of red gold then a dog barrelling towards me. I swear that I could smell his breath as he stopped dead two yards from me.

It was a cattle dog, with a pale orange coat, and white highlights on his flanks, shoulders and muzzle. He wore a black collar and looked well fed. He growled softly, showing white teeth. A young dog, in his prime.

‘Hello mate,’ I said, as calmly as I could.

He growled again, and I heard the shout of his owner, closer now.

‘Get here, dog,’ called the man.

The dog whipped his head around, whined, then turned his attention back to me.

‘Go on boy,’ I whispered, and tried to tell him with my eyes that I was not a threat. Just a traveller resting.

Again he growled, and the sound of footsteps was now at the fringes of the gully. I had no energy to get up and run. Yet it seemed so pointless to get caught here, by a cane farmer after what I had gone through.

The sound of boots on grass came closer. Another shout for the dog. Then, with a final snarl the dog turned and ran, followed by the sounds of the owner chastising him for running off. I was on tenterhooks until I heard the pair walking away. Even then I scarcely breathed for ten minutes or so, until I was pretty sure they were not coming back.

I was hungry and thirsty, having eaten the last of the Anzac biscuits during the night on the train and drained the last of the water. Walking, hanging onto sapling trunks and branches for support, I found the bed of the stream that wound through the gully. It was not flowing, and some of the puddles had a scum on them. I found the cleanest of these, filled my bottle and drank it down, then topped it up again.

There was only one food available to me. Most of the mature cane had been harvested a few months earlier, but there were odd standing stalks on the fringes of the gully. I broke off a stem, sucking the sugar cane like I had as a boy. It wasn’t filling, but it would keep me alive.

Waiting for darkness, back in my hiding place, I set about checking my dressings. I picked and chewed more cane to keep me going.

Finally, night came. Time to get moving. I lumbered out of the gully and back towards the tracks.

***

I jumped the fence into Cairns Showground at six in the morning, almost dead with fatigue. Shouldering the door into the public toilets open, I washed myself and shaved with the razor Dave had supplied, leaving long sideburns that altered my appearance a lot. After attending high school and working here, I knew people in this town. I had to be able to walk past acquaintances.

At this point I washed and redressed my wounds – most were healing OK, apart from the tooth-puncture at the base of my back, which was hot to the touch and puffy. I shoved as much iodine as I could into it, and covered it up, hoping for the best. It was also time to dump the bag Dave had left for me. I found room in my pockets for the important stuff, then chucked the rest, including the water bottle and the bag itself, into the bin.

Leaving the showgrounds in the same way in which I’d arrived, it took all my self-control not to walk down a few blocks, turn into a quiet street and head for the house I had spent most of my teenage years in. Mum hadn’t been well since the trial, and I knew that ten minutes with me would help. Yet, the cops would surely be watching the house. Even if they thought I might have been taken by a croc they’d be watching the house. All I would do was cause her pain, and I’d done enough of that already.

I turned my thoughts to the need to move through Cairns without attracting attention. I knew the city well, even better than Townsville, and the key to fitting in was to slot into one of the main categories of people who frequented the place: tourists, anglers, professionals, tradesmen or ringers from nearby cattle stations.

I had found an old felt hat beside the rail tracks during the night. It worked with the jeans and shirt I had and helped to hide my face. My job in the prison garden meant that, unlike many prisoners, I had maintained a suntan on my face, neck and hands. I was dusty enough to look like a ringer. Being dirty and carrying a few injuries wasn’t unusual for a stockman in this part of the world.

Wandering into Sheridan Street, not far from where I had faced bail court so many months before, I found that the newsagent was open. It was just a kid behind the counter, so I loosened up the drawl in my voice, and bought a copy of the Cairns Post, along with a pair of cheap sunglasses. I walked three doors to a bakery, another of the few shops you can count on to open early, and bought two meat pies, a coke and an apple slice.

With the food in brown paper bags, the coke in one hand, and the newspaper under my arm, I walked across to the park, taking the nearest secluded table. That first pie, I swear, was the tastiest thing I had eaten for a long time, but it was the newspaper that stole my attention.

‘Croc takes Escapee’ was the headline, scrolling past my eyes across the front page. I read the story that followed. I already had an inkling, from the conversation between the railway man and the cop, that I was now assumed to be in the gut of the reptile that had taken me from the creek bank. The headline confirmed it. I was a dead man walking. That was a strange feeling. I popped the coke and read on.

The story of my ‘tragic’ escape continued on the third page, accompanied by my prison admission photo in black and white, along with another from my army days, in jungle greens. Next came a recap of my original ‘crime’, as if anyone in FNQ needed reminding about that.

I lowered the paper for a moment. If the cops thought I was dead, then so, probably, did Mum and Dave. I had to do something. That kind of news would damn near kill her. First, however, I had to organise a way out of here.

I flicked through to the classified section, and thumbed through the cars for sale. I needed something reliable under $500. Nothing flashy, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at anything without some guts under the bonnet.

My eyes, scanning the ads swiftly, fixed on a Ford XY for $350, just five years old. A Holden man through and through, I was realist enough to know that this was a bargain. The suburb was Westcourt, within walking distance. It was also a downmarket area, where people might be a little less informed and alert. There were none of those brand-new colour television sets in Westcourt.

I finished the last of the apple slice, brushed off the crumbs and screwed my rubbish into a ball. Standing was a big effort, as my wounds had stiffened up again, and I tried to hide the pain from passersby. I dropped my rubbish into a bin and adjusted my sunglasses and hat. I walked off, just another bushie in from the scrub, hungover in the early morning.

I found a payphone and used some of my change from the café to make the call. The seller was awake; the car still available. I gave my name as Chris and promised to head around to view the car shortly. I collected my change from the slot and left the box. I had another call to make but it would have to wait an hour or two.

I prepared my story as I left the box and headed down Mulgrave Road then Brown Street. I shoved the newspaper into a bin, because ringers don’t carry newspapers around.

I knew the car was perfect, even before I opened the bonnet and heard it run. The engine was the 250 cubic inch straight six, one of the most reliable engines ever to roll off the assembly line at Geelong.  With the two-barrel carby these things were no slouches either, up around the 150 horsepower mark.

The seller was dirtier and had a more desperate look than me. If he noticed bandages under my clothes, he didn’t say anything. I guessed that he was sweating on the money. I offered him $325 from the hoard Dave had left for me, and spent ten minutes on the verandah drinking a mug of tea and filling out rego papers in a fake name.

By nine o’clock I was driving north out of town with my hat and sunglasses on. I stopped at the last public telephone box and made another call. This time to Eagers Holden in Townsville.

I asked for Dave Livermore. Told the girl at the desk that he’d done some work on my car last week and I had a question about it. ‘He’s a bloody good mechanic,’ I said. ‘Can you get him for me?’

‘Sorry, I can’t. Dave’s off work for the week. His Mum’s unwell, up in Cairns. Can I leave a message for him when he comes back?’

‘Nah, I’ll catch up with him.’

I went back to the car, again considering heading around to Mum’s place now that I knew Dave was there as well. Staying just a minute or two. Or even ringing her directly. Yet, after all I’d done to get to this point, I knew that I could not. I had to head north. I had to clear my name. Getting caught now would be the stupidest thing I could do.

 ©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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