Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-four – Kat


Desperate not to attract attention, I stayed under the speed limit, though I could feel the restrained power of the Ford on the open road. I saw just one cop out from Cairns, and he was on the side of the road changing a tyre. With my hat and sunglasses on, I felt secure enough. The poor bastard was too busy to worry about passing traffic.

With a hot and humid breeze blowing in through the open window, I started to enjoy the drive into a countryside of sugar cane, bananas, then tropical fruit and tobacco farms. I stopped at one of my favourite towns, Mareeba, to fill the tank and buy another coke, a cheese roll, a bag of chips for later and two mangoes.

Back on the road, I was doing OK, but the wound above my pelvis was starting to feel uncomfortable, and sitting didn’t help. When I touched the area with my fingers I could feel the swelling, and my skin was hot to touch.

I cruised through Mount Molloy, and stopped at Bob’s Lookout to eat a mango, sitting on a road barrier peeling the skin off with my fingernails and chewing out the sweet flesh, uncaring when the juice ran down my cheeks. Mount Carbine, in the distance, was indistinct but spectacular, surrounded by stray thunderheads, like cleanskin cattle looking for a mob.

I stuck a hand into my jeans pocket and pulled out the rest of my cash, counting it carefully. $140 and some coins. Enough to keep me in food and petrol for a week or two. I found something else too – a folded piece of paper that had been in the oilskin bag Dave had packed for me – something I had forgotten in the stress of being on the run.

I opened up the page with trembling hands, thanking God that I had not seen this before leaving Cairns, because I swear that Dave’s familiar handwriting would have driven me to the door of my family home in an instant.

Dear Pete

I hope that when you read this you have got clear of the cops and are running free. I’ve done my best to get you set up, but I know it’s not enough, mate, and am prepared to go all the way for you when I know how.

I wanted to tell you that my history expert mate has been looking into that bronze medal that seems to have caused all this trouble. He says that the particular kind of dragon on the face of it was linked up with one of the triads that was active on the Palmer River fields back in the late 1800s. He’s pretty interested in the whole thing – says that the Chinese shipped a stack of gold out of the fields and maybe … well who knows, but it’s something.

Hope you and me will be able to catch up over a beer and some fishing soon, and all this will be forgotten. I hope I can help out more soon.

Your brother and best mate.


I got back in the car with bleary eyes. Maybe I had a bit of a fever, I wasn’t sure just yet, but even with the window down I had a raging thirst, and the pain and swelling in my lower back was getting worse. Thoughts of Mum and Dave; the knowledge that both of them probably thought I was dead, was playing havoc with my state of mind.

When I finally reached the Palmer River, I parked the Ford on the side of the road. Without bothering to lock up, I picked my way down towards the riverbed with an empty Coke bottle.

The river was flowing brown, but I didn’t care. It was fresh and wet and that was enough for me. I squatted on the bank and leaned over to fill the glass bottle. I drank it down in three swallows then filled it again.

It was a long time since I’d had visions of the dragon, but on the banks of the Palmer I could see it clearly in the massing clouds and river eddies. This river was the centre of one of Australia’s biggest gold rushes.  Getting here from the coast in those days was an ordeal lasting a week. Now it was only a matter of hours, thanks to tarmac roads and modern vehicles.

Not far from that crossing, amongst the ruins of the old goldrush town of Maytown and the rusted hulks of old plant and equipment, something happened that was screwing up my life. I was taking control, but the personal cost was growing too high to bear.

Near the Byerstown Range I ran into a heavy storm, with raindrops lashing the bonnet and windscreen. There was a leak near the bottom left of the glass, which dripped down to the dash, but apart from that the car was unstoppable. I wished I could talk about it with Dave. I could picture him helping me tune up the engine, squeezing out every ounce of power, laughing while we did it.

When I saw the sign for the Lion’s Den Hotel, I knew that I was getting close to Cooktown. Sunset was a red blaze on the western sky. It was getting hard for me to stay awake. Too hard.

By the time I was in sight of the Annan River bridge I knew that I’d pushed my luck far enough. I turned off into an overgrown track and drove in as far as I dared, parking deep in the scrub near the river. Anyone who saw the car, I hoped, would assume that it belonged to a fisherman.

I locked up, pocketed the keys and set out to walk into Cooktown – over the eighty-year-old bridge and along the main road, ducking into the trees when I saw car headlights. It took an hour of walking before I came over the hill with the town spread below, and the river and harbour sprinkled with the lights of boats.

Dogs picked up my presence as I walked into town, barking as I reached the outlying streets. I was running on adrenalin by then, my temperature high, sweat dripping from my nose and chin, smelling frangipani blossoms and ripe turpentine mangoes from house yards along the way.  

I passed a corner store with a telephone box out the front. I didn’t want to. I tried not to. But I walked across and shoved open the door, lifted the receiver and fed a couple of coins into the slot. I hooked my forefinger into the numbers of the dial, one at a time, then held on grimly, my heart beating fast and pulse throbbing in wrists, groin and neck.

The voice that came on the other end surprised me. It wasn’t Dave or Mum. It was Dave’s wife Suzie.

‘It’s me,’ I blurted. ‘Tell Mum not to worry.’

I could hear Suzie’s indrawn breath all the way to Cooktown. ‘Pete, is that really you? They said you—’

‘I’m OK. Tell Mum that.’

 ‘Listen, she’s had a bit of a breakdown. She’s in hospital …’

By Christ I nearly lost it then. ‘Let her know that I love her, and I’m coming home soon … but tell no one else, just her and Dave.’

I slammed down the phone and wanted to punch the glass sides of the booth, but instead I closed the door behind me, and walked on down towards Charlotte Street. I was angry, and I wanted an outlet.  

By then, it was eight o’clock on a Saturday night. If some of the Wild Dog crew were in town, there was a fair chance some of them would be in the pub tonight. I wanted to talk to them about the murders of two of my mates and the months in prison I’d served for a crime I didn’t commit.

I wasn’t worried about standing out, in my dirty jeans, looking like death warmed up. Cooktown, in 1973, was a wild frontier town, where ringers rubbed shoulders with fishing crews, road construction gangs, a few tourists and taciturn old locals who ran the local stores and petrol stations. With my hat on my head, I’d attract little attention.

I started at the Sovereign Hotel, which was where I’d seen those bastards last time. Close to six months had passed since I’d stepped into a pub, and the smell of stale beer hit me like a fist as I entered the front bar. A Glenn Campbell concert was on the TV. He was singing Yesterday When I Was Young and a couple of local blokes – looked like marine maintenance crew or construction workers – were deep into their beers at the bar, watching and talking.

Avoiding eye contact with the barman, who I recognised from my previous visit, I wandered through into the beer garden, which was lit up with coloured lights and a decorated tree in an alcove. Christmas, I remembered, was only a few days away.

I ordered a glass of XXXX, a counter meal from a barmaid and took a seat. I sat near a bloke with an electric guitar. He was fingerpicking a Pink Floyd number, while I scanned the couples and small groups spread through the area.

That first beer in six months tasted good. I’d drunk grog inside, of course – a horrible home brew that was made with water, sugar and sultanas. Wild yeast in the sultanas did the fermenting and it was possible to get properly drunk on the stuff, though I had never been able to stomach enough to do the job.

When the food came, I only picked at it. I wasn’t really hungry, though I hadn’t eaten for hours. I put my knife and fork aside, after a while, and watched people come and go from the bar and head off to the dunnies. I had no real plan at all, I just wanted to come face to face with the bastards who did me over. Maybe get one of them alone and ask some hard questions.

More people arrived – singles, couples and groups. The feller with the electric guitar upped his tempo, playing twelve bar blues and a few rockabilly numbers. A couple of girls started putting their drinks down on my table between dances. One of them, maybe a year or two younger than me, appeared to notice me when her mate went back into the front bar.

‘Oh hello,’ she said. ‘I don’t reckon I know you. What’s your name?’

‘Tom,’ I said. The first name that came into my head.

‘Kat.’ She held out a hand to shake and her skin was cool. Her face was light olive, with a sheen of sweat from the humid night. Straight, very dark hair hung past her shoulders, and she wore a singlet top and short skirt.

‘You work around here?’ she asked.

‘Out bush,’ I said. ‘Just in for the weekend. What about you?’

‘I’m a nurse, from Brisbane, but I’m doing a year up North. Six months here and six in Weipa.’

‘Good on you,’ I said. There was the hint of an accent in her voice. Greek maybe, but second-generation. Like the kids who grow up with parents who speak their original language at home. I’d known a lot of Italian kids like that growing up.

‘You want another drink?’ she asked.

‘Not yet.’

‘At least you’re not off your face like most of the blokes in here tonight.’

Now that she said it, that’s what I felt like doing. Throwing down rums between the beers, taking this cute young thing up onto the dance floor and flying with her into oblivion. As if I even had the energy.

‘I was thinking I might move on to the Toppie,’ I said. This was what just about everyone called the Cooktown Hotel – the top pub, and the men I wanted to see were certainly not here.

‘You want company?’

I hesitated, the idea of dragging anyone into my world went against my instincts, but what better cover could I have than to be part of a couple? Besides, I had that tingly feeling I get when I like a girl. After all that I had been through, I was still human.

‘Sure, if you want to,’ I said, and waited out the front while she told her girlfriends where she was off to.

Trying not to limp, I walked with her to the Top Pub, that old weatherboard masterpiece, and took a couple of stools on the verandah. Kat didn’t seem to mind that I was happy to savour one beer. We talked about her work, the weather and her impressions of the town itself. I didn’t say that there were undercurrents in this place that were disturbing and strong – that I had narrowly escaped a beating in the park last time I was here.

‘You’ve got a bit of an accent,’ I said. ‘What is it?’ When she didn’t answer straight away I apologised. ‘Sorry, none of my business.’

‘No that’s OK. My mother was Greek, my father an Australian seaman on the ship they were immigrating on. The whole thing was a huge scandal, and my family is still on the outer – pretty much no one in the family talks to my Mum and Dad, but they try to pull me in – it’s like a conspiracy. “Come with us, Katerina, your Mama and Papa are no good.”’ She smiled, ‘That’s one of the reasons I was happy to leave Brisbane, next thing I know they’d have had me married off to some sweaty old man just off the plane from Athens.’

The man from the Cooktown park didn’t turn up at the Top Pub either, and by the time Kat and I had downed another drink my eyes had started to close, and my bar stool seemed to be rotating.

My new friend stared at me and reached out to touch my cheek. ‘You’re burning hot. You’ve got a fever.’ Before I could stop her she pushed aside the lapel of my shirt until she could see a bandage. ‘You’re hurt. How?’

‘Don’t ask,’ I said. ‘Please don’t ask.’

‘Whatever it is under those dressings, they need attention,’ she said. ‘Come on, let’s get you home – or even better – straight up to outpatients.’

‘No way,’ I blurted, trying to avoid her eyes. ‘I can’t.’

She took my hand and helped me to my feet. ‘Where are you staying?’

I shook my head. ‘Nowhere.’

 Kat’s face was beautiful, but that wasn’t the only thing that I liked about it. There was a kindness in it too. ‘Haven’t you got a room?’ she asked.

I shook my head. I didn’t want to tell her anything, but I wanted to tell her everything. I didn’t want to trust her, but I had to trust someone. I wrapped my arms around her to stop myself from falling.

©2024 Greg Barron

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Continued next Saturday.

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