Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-six – Cooktown Harbour


Yeuen Liang, emissary of the Dragon Head of the Sheathed Sword Society, stood at the foredeck of the two-masted zaw called the Kingfisher, his face reflecting the colours of sunset. The western sky was a spray of brilliant orange, mauve and yellow, and beneath this magnificence reared a mountain shaped like a mighty pyramid. Smaller hills enclosed the mouth of the Endeavour River – the port of Cooktown.  

Liang longed with all his heart for the feeling of land beneath his feet, and the chance to complete the remainder of the task that had been assigned to him.

Qian Yao came up beside him, hair tossing in the wind. ‘We need to fly, Jingci. We must make it in before sunset or the Yi Harbourmaster might refuse us entry.’

Liang smiled at the Master’s use of the word Yi. It was a common term meaning foreigner or barbarian. ‘Let us fly then,’ he said. ‘I will not spend another night in these seas.’

The past week – the journey down the Queensland coast, had been slow, uncomfortable, and difficult. The trade winds blew out of the southeast with such constant force that the Kingfisher needed to tack on a wide reach to make headway, pitching, yawing and rolling so severely that a less seaworthy vessel might have foundered.

At night these winds threw up a salt-haze so thick that even the sharpest-eyed lookouts could scarcely make out the many reefs, cays and islands in the waters between the Barrier Reef and the mainland. At these times it was necessary to anchor in the lee of some islet or other, swinging on the warp, skating sideways so abruptly that few men could sleep soundly.

All the time, down in the hold, the prisoner, the murderous Haoyu, shouted and vowed his revenge in eloquent but rabid terms. Iron collars on his ankles were attached to chains around the mainmast, but his tongue could not be controlled. Liang was forced to have ear plugs made for those who guarded him. These unfortunates were also changed regularly, for the words of Haoyu were as sweet as wine, and men grew drunk on them readily.

Slowly, racing against the fading light, the Endeavour River and the hills that guarded it grew closer. The port itself became visible. There was a steamer alongside the wharves, of seven or eight hundred tons, the stack belching coal smoke into the paling sky.

Liang willed his vessel onwards, while holding tight to a rail against the bucking movement of the zaw. The calm anchorage beyond the river mouth was calling to him, and the township even more so. He could not quell the excitement that rose and fell in his breast. Some thirty leagues beyond this coast, was the River of Gold – the Palmer – and the wealth he must take home to his leader.

Around Liang’s neck hung the medallion with its embossed dragon – the symbol of authority that he would need to take the hoard of gold won by the Sheathed Sword labourers home safely. This must be done without, of course, paying any of the customs dues that the Yi would extract if it were taken through official channels.

It was almost dark when they had sailed as close to the port as Qian Yao, the master, was prepared to go, and he began shouting orders to luff the sails and heave to. Liang could see that the south arm of the harbour was protected by the hill he had seen earlier, and the north was formed from a long promontory with sandy beaches glowing in the moonlight. In that direction Liang could see signs of shallows, with white phosphorescence on the churning surface.

Now, under bare poles, the Kingfisher wallowed in a beam sea, while a pair of crewmen brought out two flags and ran them up the mizzen, where they fluttered almost uncontrollably. The first was the official Qing dynasty flag, a dragon on a yellow background, reaching for a red sun. The second was a signal flag, on which was written the Arabic numerals 87 in huge black digits, on a white background.  

Qian Yao came up beside Liang again. ‘Now we wait,’ he said.

‘Why wait?’ asked Liang. ‘We have to get off this cursed sea.’

Qian Yao clasped Liang’s shoulder. ‘See the knoll they call Grassy Hill there? The signal station?’

Liang followed the master’s pointing hand with his eyes. He saw a point on the hill, illuminated with gas lamps. Atop a pole flew the British red ensign.

‘That flag,’ said the Master, ‘means that they are currently embarking passengers from the steamer. With luck they will have already seen us approaching and will spot our own banners – the first indicates our nationality and the second our port of origin. They will run up a pennant to allow us access to the port. Until then we must wait.’

Time passed, and the sky darkened further. The port authorities, it seemed, had either not seen them, or were in no hurry. Still at the bows, Qian Yao issued orders that the evening meal be prepared, despite the conditions, to keep the men focussed.

Liang studied the harbour while he waited. The lights of Cooktown were many, supplemented by the lanterns of ships anchored in the river. He now had a good view of the steamship at the wharf – the name on her bows was the Adria. Hundreds of passengers were alighting, with bags of supplies and poles on which to balance them. From their dress, even at a distance, Liang guessed that they were outward bound from Macao. He envied them the ground they walked on, while he remained on a tossing deck.

‘The authorities are toying with us,’ Liang said to the Master.

‘Possibly,’ said Qian Yao. ‘If we were an English vessel we would already be tying up to a berth – there is room there at the most landward jetty.’

‘What if we do not wait?’ Liang asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I am not prepared to waste time, on the Dragon Head’s business. We have a dangerous man below and time is of the essence. They obviously intend to keep us out here all night and that I will not suffer.’

Qian Yao looked surprised, as if he had not expected the younger man to show such mettle. ‘I am not quite sure, Qingci, what will happen if we sail in through the bar without permission, but I am willing to try.’

‘Good, then let us do so.’

The master called back an order to lift the anchor, and to raise only the mizzen sail, this scrap being sufficient to make way across the wind. Then, with orders being relayed to the helmsman, and Qian Yao remaining at the bows, the Kingfisher began to creep inside the river mouth.

As soon as they rounded the point, and were cut off from the wind, the relief was palpable. The wind faded to a mere whistle, and the jagged swells became ripples.

The reaction from the Harbourmaster, however, was rapid.

The pilot boat, a thirty-foot steam launch, with fires from her boiler glowing like hell in the night, sped out from her berth. The smell of burning coal filled the air as a man appeared at the rail with a bullhorn, calling out in Pidgin.

‘Go back. You no enter. You no fit inside tonight. Tomolo you come, savvy?’

Qian Yao turned to Liang. ‘He says not tonight. Shall we begin our turn?’

‘No,’ said Liang. He understood well enough. These men wanted to send the Kingfisher back out into the wind and the wild sea. It was possible, he reasoned, that the port authorities were worried that the arrival of two different groups of Chinese at the same time might cause trouble, or they were just being bloody minded and enforcing a no-entry-at-night rule.

Liang scowled, ‘Tell the Englishmen that we will moor in the river tonight. We will not go back out to sea. Tell him that our crew are exhausted from heavy seas, and we have an injured man on board who requires nursing.’

The master called out the reply.

The man with the bullhorn shouted back, pointing out to sea. ‘No, you sail boat to reef – shelter there. You do as me say, savvy?’

Liang knew only a few words of English, but ‘No’ was one of them. At the same time, he used the Chinese gesture of holding his palm next to his body, waving it from side to side. Finally, he pointed over into the darkness where there were other boats.

‘There,’ he shouted in Cantonese. ‘We anchor there.’

The two men on the boat conferred, then shrugged their shoulders and powered away.

Liang turned to Qian Yao and smiled. They had forced their will on the Yi at the first meeting. It was a good result and the Kingfisher sailed serenely on, into the increasingly calm river, where a multitude of bat-like creatures filled the sky above, rustling their wings and infusing the air with a pungent odour.

No sooner, however, had the Kingfisher dropped anchor and swung tight on the chain than Liang asked for one of the ship’s boats to be launched.

‘Where are you going?’ asked the Master. ‘Landing tonight, even in a small boat will surely invite trouble from the Yi.’

‘There is too much to be done. I will go ashore now, alone.’

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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