Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-eight – The Goldfields


Back on the Kingfisher, Liang could not relax or settle. The Rì Chū Guild would know by now that he had arrived in Cooktown, and that meant danger. Both port and starboard watches were doubled, and armed with rifles, while Liang paced the deck, thinking deeply. After midnight he roused Qian Yao from his bunk, outlining the rough plan that he had prepared in his mind.

‘You cannot stay here in port,’ Liang told the ship’s master. ‘You must find a safe rendezvous point – a calm anchorage in which to wait – far from any possibility of an attack from the Guild. If we win through with the gold, we must also distance ourselves from the Yi police and customs inspectors.’

The master fetched a chart from a store, unrolling it on the table, moving a lantern to illuminate the area. At some length, his moustaches twitching with excitement, Qian Yao spoke, ‘Some years ago, we struck a reef and sustained damage serious enough to make careening the hull necessary. We found a river – north of a cape that Yi navigators call Tribulation. It has a good entrance, and a pleasant anchorage – but best of all the Yi do not frequent the area.’ He used a long fingernail to point at the waterway on the chart. ‘Is that too far? From the Palmer River it might be a hundred leagues, and the hinterland is rough indeed.’

Liang shrugged away the distance as if it were nothing. He came from a land where roads and trails led everywhere a person needed to go. Later he would rue this inexperience. ‘If it is somewhere in which you can wait undisturbed, far from prospectors and wandering vagabonds, it will be perfect.’ Liang’s eyes clouded over. ‘The only problem I foresee, is finding this hidden place. We will most likely run inland, north from the goldfields, and avoid coming back to Cooktown.’

Qian Yao sighed, ‘Yes, you will need a navigator. You have taken a shine to young Gam. Would he be suitable?’

‘If you think he is equal to the task.’

‘I do. He can navigate by the stars as well as any of the officers, and is competent in the use of a sextant, which I will send with him. I will also copy this section of the charts for him before dawn, ready to take with you.’ He paused and looked seriously at Liang. ‘What of Haoyu? He has murdered once and may well do so again.’

Liang had already pondered this question, and he knew that he could not leave the Dragon Head’s son to infect the crew of the Kingfisher with his words, particularly not as the Kingfisher may be forced to wait at anchor for many days.

‘Haoyu comes with me,’ Liang said. ‘He is my responsibility and will remain so until I place him into his father’s care.’


While the sky was still dark, long before the Cooktown harbourmaster and pilot were at their stations, the Kingfisher slipped her mooring. Moving silently, Qian Yao and his crew brought her alongside the Number Three Wharf.

Liang, his ten warriors, and Gam, slipped ashore soundlessly. Each of them carried a bundle of provisions, a sword, and a rifle or pistol. Last in line was Haoyu, gagged and roped to a man on either side, his eyes injecting venom into the very air with each stride.

Liang was certain that any sighting of this armed group would raise the ire of town officials, so he led them at a quick march up the broad and long main street and into the Chinese quarter. The smell of cold hearth fires and sewage from pit latrines lay heavy in the pre-dawn air, and sounds of revelry could still be heard in the distance – drunken singing and an accordion.

The Straw Sandal was as good as his word, with twelve horses saddled and tacked in the Chinese manner, ready for departure. A support wagon drawn by two huge draught horses was packed with provisions, though enough space remained for Haoyu to be bundled into the back, his ropes secured to iron rings in the sides. Gam would ride the twelfth horse, while the Straw Sandal settled onto the wagon box with the driver.

Liang did not waste time in getting the feel for his mount – he rode only rarely these days, but he was a farm boy, and had spent plenty of time on the backs of donkeys, mules and horses, bareback and saddled. He walked his horse close to the wagon, ‘Let us depart, with all speed,’ he called.

The Straw Sandal raised an eyebrow. ‘Do not be too hasty. Even these days, with a formed road, a horseman needs five days to reach the goldfields.’

‘We will do it in four,’ said Liang, and dug in his heels.


On both sides of the track for a mile onwards from town were the camps of men, and some women, of all cultures. The Straw Sandal explained to Liang that many of these people were either utterly destitute and starving from an unsuccessful foray at the fields, or new arrivals who had been fleeced of their funds by the sharp operators of Cooktown. Some were Chinese miners who had been ostracised or cast out from their society or organisation.

Others were apparently on their way to the diggings, waiting for ‘mates’ who never came, or money transfers from families down South. Liang did not waste his sympathy on them. There was far too much at stake, and he was well aware that in the next days he would face danger from more than one quadrant. He would need all his skill and physical prowess to survive.

An hour’s ride on from Cooktown, however, Liang stopped the procession and removed the gag that had been wrapped so tightly around Haoyu’s mouth. Keeping him under control was essential, unnecessary cruelty was not.

‘I will kill you for this mistreatment,’ swore the Dragon Head’s son. ‘My father would not stand for it, and neither will I.’

Liang did not flinch. ‘Keep a civil tongue and be warned – if I hear of you trying to influence the men around you, I will have the gag replaced. Do you understand?’

Haoyu did not answer, just stared balefully with those black eyes of his. Liang was already walking away, remounting his horse and cantering to the front of the group.

All day they passed men on their way to the fields, and some returning – half starved and weatherbeaten – the majority were Chinese. Some shared information from the diggings – news of new rushes at the Hodgkinson and successes at ‘old’ workings such as Jessop’s Creek and Echotown.

Other travellers brought news that the men of Macao and Peking had been fighting between Lukinville and Palmerville. Some counselled Liang to delay the journey. To this suggestion the young leader resolutely shook his head, and when they stopped for the noon meal, he allowed his men barely enough time to cram food in their mouths and swallow a pint or two of water before urging them on again.

They rode on into the night, passing places with unsettling names such as Battle Creek and Murdering Lagoon. Mercifully, the moon sank below the horizon, and it was soon too dark to proceed. By then even those seasoned warriors were saddle sore, exhausted and unsettled by the sound of a rhythmic clap of sticks far away in the darkness, and a heavy and otherworldly drone.

‘What in Heaven is that?’ Liang asked.

‘The Merkin tribes,’ said the Straw Sandal. ‘Be thankful that they are making music, not sneaking upon us with their spears in the night.’

Haoyu laughed when he heard, and shouted loudly. ‘Come, devils of the night, with your spears and song. Destroy these weaklings and I will join with you and become your teacher and leader.’

The haranguing tones went on for so long that Liang was forced to make good his threat and gag the big man, for everyone in the camp was convinced that the prisoner’s words would bring the Merkin down on them in force.

With few but the boldest able to sleep, the party rose again before sunrise, urging the scarcely rested horses on – there were no spare mounts. The ride was a cruelty to the animals, and few riders did not resort to using a whippy branch as a crop.

Liang was from a mountainous region, but that day, on the Normanby River, and a tributary called Cabbagetree Creek, he encountered some of the roughest terrain he could have imagined. Even the grasses were crackling dry, and the stones so sharp that if a horse threw a shoe it had to be reshod immediately, or it would be lame in minutes.

Another night in camp, with the Merkin mercifully silent, and Liang spent his time learning everything he could about the goldfields.

‘Each of the societies has a base,’ the Straw Sandal explained, ‘sometimes more than one, called a Zongbu, where the miners camp together for protection. They are fed each meal there, and housed in either tents or barracks made of rough shanties. There is a guarded strong room where the gold is kept. Ours is just west of Palmerville, and the Guild’s further downstream, near Lukinville.’

The next day they covered thirty miles along the Little Laura River, chains of waterholes with drooping pandanus and dark paperbark-lined pools. Graves marked in Chinese and English near every camp were a reminder of the dangers of this route.

After another broken sleep, picking their way along the slopes of the Conglomerate Range, the exhausted party ran almost headlong into a fast-moving party of Yi police, dusty and sweat-stained, with a retinue of spare horses. Only the two officers were white men, in command of eight or ten black troopers. They did not slow down or stop to talk, just yelled something unintelligible and continued along the track.

On the fifth day, after following the Kennedy River to its headwaters amongst a dry range of hills, they crossed the watershed and finally reached the Palmer River – that place of such significance in Liang’s life. It was, to his eyes, a nondescript waterway, nothing like the grand and imposing place he had envisaged – its piles of spoil from old workings, and groups of miners working sluices, moving spoil in industrious chains, many recognisable as regional groups of Chinese. The Yi were fewer in number, and wore mostly flannel shirts, red in colour.  

‘The Yi believe that red cloth keeps the flies away,’ said the Straw Sandal, smiling at the childish simplicity of this belief.

The town of Palmerville was overwhelmingly Chinese; a shanty town of dubious ancestry, of strange and remarkable secrets; a crowded place of shacks made with poles and clad with sheets of bark. On every street the sound of merchants singing the praises of their wares – butchers selling meat, and the smell of burning opium mixed with spicy Cantonese cuisine from hot food vendors filling the nostrils.

West of the town they passed a burned-out set of barricades, constructed of still-smouldering logs. The Straw Sandal waved airily at the relic as they passed. ‘There was a great fight here,’ he said. ‘The miners from Macao moved in on some disputed ground and it took two hundred men to dislodge them. In the end, as you can see, they were burned out and overwhelmed.

Liang shook his head in amazement. The lawlessness of the goldfields astounded him.

Less than a mile further on, following a track rutted from the wheels of drays, they came to the Zongbu of the Sheathed Sword Society. It was, and rightly so, as much a fortress as a barracks, with outer walls of rammed earth topped with stone. Some workers appeared to be busy increasing the height of the wall. Liang eased his horse to a stop and surveyed the site thoroughly.

A line of men were streaming out from their midday meal, and Liang could see the strain of hard work in their eyes, the hollow cheeks, and the tired tread of their feet. All wore conical, coolie hats and carried tools that he guessed they had dared not leave on the diggings for fear of theft.

The Straw Sandal stepped down from his wagon and stood beside Liang. ‘This is it,’ he said. ‘The defences, as you can see, are being strengthened.’

‘How far away is the Zongbu of the Rì Chū Guild?’ Liang asked.

‘Three hours on foot, an hour on horseback.’

Liang inclined his head. ‘We will refresh ourselves, change horses, see that our prisoner is secure, then I will take a small party to scout it out.’

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

Read previous chapters here.

Image Credit: The Chinese invasion, northern Queensland. Wood engraving. Rex Nan Kivell 1877

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