Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-nine – The Wild Dog River


The sounds of the Vanguard preparing for departure followed. Commands rang out from the helm – I assumed from Sergeant Green – and running feet moved to obey. Even above the rumble of the engine I heard a new person arrive on deck – a voice that lacked the bluster and arrogance of the others. A quiet voice – accented maybe, but it was hard to be sure.  

I wondered if I had made the right decision in choosing my hiding place. Entering the compartment had been, I realised, a bad idea even before Kat decided to complicate things by joining me. It was reasonably secure, yes, but we had no water or food, and it contained items that might be needed by the crew at any time.

‘Last chance,’ I said to Kat, confident that my voice would not carry topsides above the noise of the engine. ‘Just clamber out now, they might be too busy to see you – even if they do, just say that you wandered on board by mistake.’

Kat’s eyes glowed like sunflowers in the darkness. ‘No. I’m not going anywhere. You need someone to help you. You need a friend – and a nurse – all those stitches have to come out in a few days.’ I could sense her smile. ‘The first time I’ve attempted sutures myself,’ she said, ‘I’m quite proud of them.’

‘I wondered who stitched me up,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’

More shouts and running feet; the sound of ropes slipping through cleats and bollards. The hull became free of restraint – I could feel the change. A moment later the hatch opened, and sunlight cascaded in.

Both Kat and I shrunk away into the shadows of the compartment as three tubular fenders, dripping wet with seawater, were thrown in, one striking me on the shoulder. It was followed by ropes; coiled and tied. I saw the shadowy head and shoulders of a man, but he was not looking in. The hatch slammed closed, and I dared to breathe again. Kat’s hand wriggled through the ropes to clasp mine, whether for her comfort or mine I was unsure.

The engine clunked into gear, and the boat began to ease forward, accompanied  by the sound of water moving along the hull. I had sailed or motored out of the Endeavour River mouth a few times and could picture Mount Cook receding, and the sweep of coast to the north.

The engine revs slowly increased, and the sound was numbing. Worse still, diesel exhaust fumes were somehow making their way in. Occasionally I heard voices overhead, but had no hope now of understanding a word they said.

Something occurred to me. ‘Don’t you have to work tonight?’ I asked Kat, still holding her hand.

‘Yeah, at six.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘They’re going to wonder where you are, ‘cause you sure as hell won’t be back by then.’

I swore under my breath. Guilt and worry clouded my mind. This beautiful young woman was now an accessory to my crime of escaping from lawful custody – complicated by the fact that everyone seemed to think I was dead.

After a while Kat said, ‘Tell me everything, right from the beginning.’

 ‘You’re a sucker for punishment,’ I said. ‘Do you want just the basics, or the boring bits as well?’

‘All of it.’

I was silent for a minute or two, and Kat squeezed my hand to encourage me. I started way back. In Townsville as a kid, then the move to Cairns, my old man’s death and my year in the infantry. By the time I got to the Wild Dog River, then the killings of Owen and Tom Baines, she was crying for me silently, feeling the hurt I had felt, and still felt, every step of the way.

Kat stroked my arm softly when I told of those long months in prison, and my eventual escape, until finally the past met the present, and she heard her own part in healing my wounds, and joining me here in a place as dangerous as anywhere I had been so far.

‘If they find us in here, will they kill us?’ she asked.

‘I think at this stage they’d probably try to get everything out of me that they can – which is pretty much nothing – then dump me overboard. I’m not sure about you – they’d probably keep you alive, but I didn’t expect them to kill Owen and Tom either.’

‘So all these cops on board are in on this?’ she asked.

‘They must be. The ranking officer is a Sergeant Michael Green, and he lied his head off at my trial. The others did too.’

As the day wore on, we made nests for ourselves from fenders and lifejackets, curling up in an attempt to sleep. I was still tired and weak, and my eyes closed willingly. Kat laid her head on my shoulder – she had been working all night and must have been exhausted.

I was also tired, but I slept like a cat or a wolf, feeling like I had something to protect now, not just myself. Every ten or fifteen minutes I’d wake, listen, check for any change.

In what must have been the early afternoon, we were both woken by a gunshot, then another, and I could feel Kat’s body shaking. Then we heard laughter. More gunshots. I guessed what they were doing.

‘They’re throwing bottles overboard and shooting at them,’ I said. ‘They’re bored, and when morons get bored they do stuff like that.’

Kat settled, but neither of us slept again until the game was finished. I had a raging thirst by then, and I still hadn’t eaten. I guessed that Kat must be the same, but she didn’t complain.

Hours later, when I could see that it was dark from the lack of light coming in through the crack around the hatch, there was a change in the engine beat – a drop in revs to a fast idle. A few minutes later the engine dropped out of gear and stopped.  The splash of an anchor and the rattle of the warp followed.

Kat woke up. It was pitch black now inside the hatch, but I could sense her disorientation.

‘What’s happening?’ she whispered, careful now that the engine had stopped.

‘We’ve arrived, I think. They’re probably waiting for the tide to rise enough to let a boat this size enter the estuary – maybe also for the moon to rise.’

‘How long will that take?’

‘I don’t know.’

An hour passed, two or three maybe. We didn’t sleep. Just nursed our thirst and hunger. I guessed that Kat was now regretting her decision to join me on board. She should have been at work, doing normal things. Throwing her lot in with a fugitive like me was surely the rashest thing she had ever done. I hoped it didn’t end in disaster.

The engine started again, and we were on the move. The Vanguard had a planing hull, but with a deep vee forward, and entering coastal rivers was surely not her forte. Two or three times I felt her touch bottom and there was a flurry of shouts and running feet. On one occasion all hands ran to the starboard side to straighten her up.

After some fast water, through which the Vanguard hurried, cavitating the prop in a couple of turns, we must have entered the encircling arms of the riverbanks. After five or ten minutes of slow running, the anchor dropped, and I felt the hull swing tight against the still-rising tide. The engine stopped. My nerves were stretched tight. Would someone come to the hatch? They shouldn’t need fenders, being anchored out in the river, but there were many things in this space that might be needed. Anyone coming to look would bring a torch and we would surely be discovered.

 Next came the sound of voices, on the boat and the riverbank, calling out at each other. I pictured the Wild Dog camp as I remembered it from last time, and I was pretty sure I heard Nolan’s voice shouting back and forth with Sergeant Green.

Kat and I held hands, listening intently. It became obvious that the police boat was expected, and the occupants had been invited to head ashore. Soon afterwards we heard them launching a small boat from the davits aft, followed by the sound of an outboard motor starting, and motoring off. It made a second trip and I tried to count in my head how many men had stepped down from the hull, trying to register their voices. I was pretty sure that all six men aboard had gone.

Even so, I listened for a few minutes, but there was no sound at all from up top. ‘This is our chance,’ I said to Kat. ‘We have to get ashore, and find out what they are doing.’


‘There are life jackets in here. We swim.’

‘Your wounds aren’t fully healed yet.’

‘They’ll have to do.’

I raised the hatch and clambered out stiffly – my injuries had stiffened up through the long day in the hatch. Kneeling on the deck I froze, watching and listening, just in case some silent member of the crew had remained on watch. Yet, why would they have done so? The boat was anchored in view of the camp, and even if the anchor dragged, they could be out there in a minute or so.

Kat passed up two lifejackets each, then I helped her out. From there, keeping a low profile, we could see flames leaping from the main campfire near the riverbank, surrounded by men and a few women like last time. The two groups were greeting each other. A couple of cartons of canned beer, brought on the Vanguard, were being passed up, opened and distributed.

Crawling on our hands and knees, Cat and I moved to the starboard side, away from the camp, under the aft rail to the marlin board. ‘Put on one lifejacket and hold the other one,’ I suggested. ‘We’ll let the tide carry us upstream a little. Away from the lights. Then we’ll cross over.’

‘OK,’ said Kat, ‘but wait here a moment.’

Before I could stop her, she had disappeared through the cockpit, towards the main cabin, opened the door and slipped inside. I’d already guessed what she was doing when she reappeared a few minutes later, her arms laden with a couple of bottles of coke and four of those Space Food Sticks that were popular at the time. I generally hated the things, but these were not normal circumstances.

‘Eat and drink first,’ she said. ‘We need the energy.’

‘You’re a natural at this,’ I said, and devoured the food, throwing down mouthfuls of Coke in between. My stomach, long unused, burned and complained at the sudden intake, but overall I felt better. Once we had both finished, we shoved the food wrappers into the bottles and I leaned over the side to fill and sink them.

‘Let’s go,’ I said.

Just then, Kat asked the question I had been trying not to think about. ‘What about crocs?’

Even in late 1973, when the wholesale slaughter of crocs for their skins had only just been halted, only fools swam in tropical rivers at night. The problem was that we had to. There was one way to get ashore, and swimming was it.

‘I only saw one croc the whole time I was here, last time,’ I said. ‘We’ll be quick – and all that activity over on the bank will surely keep them away.’

But as I slipped on the lifejacket and slid towards the water, my mind conjured up a memory – that giant reptile back on Stuart’s Creek, and the way it had grabbed me, and dragged me under. The toxic holes it had gouged in my flesh. I looked back up at Kat despairingly. I was frozen. I could not move towards the water.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘Nothing. Give me a minute.’ I looked out at the dark water and willed myself to enter. I even dropped one foot in to feel the warmth. I sat on the marlin board, breathing hard, trying to understand why I had turned chicken-shit here, right now. But this was not a normal kind of fear. It was something that I had seen in other men after days of jungle and rice paddy skirmishes. The ones who had been medivacked without a scratch on their skin, but were deeply wounded inside.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I can’t do it. Sorry.’

Kat raised both hands to her head, obviously frustrated. ‘We have to get off this boat, or they’ll find us sooner or later.’

I knew it, but still I couldn’t bring myself to enter the water.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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