Wild Dog River

Chapter Forty – Fire Dragon


Every day of my life, I had counted on the strength of the muscles in my arms, legs and shoulders; my ability to think on my feet, and the raw courage I was born with. I was never the biggest bloke on the football field, but I was a fearless tackler. I’d never minded putting my body on the line, but this was something different – more than a memory surfacing. It was the claw of the dragon, thrust through gore and tissue, tearing at my organs from the inside. I was not afraid – more bloody paralysed, reeling with every sense. That giant reptile was nowhere, and it was everywhere. Most of all it was in the water, and now, understanding that fact, I could not enter.

The moon and starlight, that had seemed so bright a few minutes before, was being obscured by fast-moving cloud coming up from the west, and the first peals of thunder – still faint – broke the silence. The coming storm did nothing to soothe my nerves, and I would have given anything to be safe in a sickbed in Cooktown – the refuge that Kat had given me.

Right now, she was kneeling beside me, her arm around my shoulders. ‘Come on, we have to get off this boat. I’ll be with you every inch of the way.’

I looked at her blankly, and then across at the Wild Dog Camp and the swelling crowd around the campfire.  As I watched there was a sudden commotion, a roar of welcome and appreciation followed by a round of clapping. Kat squeezed my shoulder, tightly enough that I could feel the prick of her nails. 

‘What’s happening?’ she asked.

I forced myself to come back to reality. The happenings at the camp, just a stone’s throw from where I sat, were of crucial importance.

‘Let’s get closer and see,’ I said.

With Kat leading the way, we crept back through the transom door to the cockpit, and from there crawled across to the other side, where we raised our heads warily over the gunnels, looking across at the Wild Dog camp.

There, in that clearing, was a mad gang of bearded faces and raised beers. They were spread out around the fire and along the bank, all the way to the rock bar just downstream from the camp. There were kids sitting on the low boughs of trees, and the mood was carnival-like.

Three men walked to the front of the crowd, standing on a rise in the ground, using it like a podium. Old Nolan, the leader of this rabble, came first. I remembered his Catweazle beard, and mad eyes. Beside him walked Sergeant Michael Green and another man who had to be a cop, for he was nothing like the Wild Dog people. I guessed that he was the newcomer who had arrived on board the Vanguard in Cooktown – though none of the police party were wearing uniform. Even from a distance I could see that he had Asiatic features, was of medium height, with a trim figure and rounded shoulders.

Nolan cleared his throat and addressed the crowd in loud and penetrating tones. From my position on the Vanguard, I could hear his voice carrying clearly across the water.

‘Listen everyone,’ said Nolan. ‘It’s been a hard few months. Some of us have lost heart, an’ I admit that we’ve been running around in circles – that’s partly my fault. I apologise for that, orright?’ There were some nodding heads, a few sounds of grudging agreement and even scattered claps.

Sweat from the clammy heat ran down into my right eye, and I wiped it away restlessly. I needed to hear every word of this, and miss nothing.

‘Now,’ Nolan went on, ‘with the help of our cobbers here, the time-wasting is finished. Finally, here tonight, we can add everything up, and I reckon that in the next few days we’ll get what we want at last.’ He threw an arm around the shoulders of Sergeant Green. ‘Me old cobber Greenie here, who most of youse have met, an’ some of you served with, has come a long way to be part of this. His men too, a’course. They done the groundwork to put us on top of the situation.’

I’d wondered what the connection between the camp and the cops was – but now I understood. Many of the conspirators were veterans, and at least some of the cops were too. I understood that connection; the brotherhood of arms. But how far did that bond go?

Nolan went on, ‘Let’s go through it all from the start, if you’ll bear with me.’  

A woman walked forth from the crowd, carrying an old military ammo box. She paused next to Nolan. He delved inside and removed a cylindrical object, holding it up for the crowd to see.

‘Here is the first thing what was found – a scroll of writing on rolled cloth, sealed with wax. Youse all remember that it was found by old Karberry before he were, sadly, drowned. Youse all know the cave where he dug it up. A few days later old Paddy there,’ Nolan pointed out into the crowd, ‘found this.’ He replaced the cylinder in the box and lifted something new – a rusted piece of metal about as long as my forearm. ‘The barrel an’ block of a Nineteenth-century Chinese pistol. Experts reckon that it were copied from a Colt single-action revolver, an’ they say it were just as deadly.’

Again, Nolan placed the old relic back in the box and removed something else. This, smaller item, he held high in the air. I could not make it out at first, but lightning flickered at that moment and my heart froze. I recognised the bronze medal that I had bought from a kid on my first visit to this river. The thing that seemed to curse my life from the moment it fell into my possession and ever afterward.

I groped for Kat’s hand. ‘That’s the relic I told you about. The thing they killed my mates for.’

Nolan’s voice climbed in pitch and volume, and the crowd stirred restlessly. ‘Then, there was this,’ he shouted. ‘The precious thing what was stolen an’ returned to us after a great deal of trouble. But even when young Kenny, the lad who found the medal, took us to the place where he stumbled on it, we did not have enough information – though we blistered our hands an’ feet in the attempt. Now, thanks to our police cobbers, we’re in the know. Something awful an’ terrible happened here, make no mistake.’ He pointed up at the blackened, flickering firmament. ‘These skies have seen death before, an’ I believe that we was guided here by fate, to inherit the fortune left behind.’

Nolan, a natural showman, knew when to retire. There was not a sound amongst the crowd now, only insects, the crackle of the fire and the occasional curlew or owl out in the night. The young cop – the new addition – stepped forward and addressed the crowd in a loud and eloquent voice.

‘My name is Constable Richard Hoi,’ he said, ‘and I work in Roma Street, Brisbane as a translator. I’ve known Sergeant Green for some years, and since I share many of his beliefs, he invited me to join the group to help with translations. I speak and write both Mandarin and Cantonese, and I’m good with the traditional forms of both.’

There were calls of ‘hear, hear,’ and ‘finally’ from the assembled crowd.

‘First up,’ Constable Hoi went on, ‘is the document that started all this, found, as you just heard, sealed in a wax cannister in a cave near here. Some of you have heard various translations, others have not. In either case, I believe that earlier efforts may have missed the true meaning. Please listen to the following.

‘To the Cooktown Straw Sandal of the Sheathed Sword, I send an urgent plea by way of the young and able navigator, Chung Kin Gam. Calamitous happenings have befallen us since we left the Palmer River. I have in my possession some seven thousand taels of gold, buried in the fifth hill. Gam will proceed on foot to Cooktown and return to you with this missive. We need assistance, a ship, to arrive with all speed, whether a charter or Society vessel I authorise the expenditure.’

Constable Hoi paused for a heartbeat or two and said, ‘I sense that some of you are surprised that my translation features the word ‘hill’. The original script uses the Chinese character for Wuxing, which is a philosophical reference to the five “agents” or “elements” of wood, water, fire, metal and earth. I don’t wish to bore you, but in the theory of Wuxing, and its transformative energies, it is known that earth bears metal, and in this case gold. Hills, of course, are made of earth and it so happens that five hilltops surround the cave in question, easily recognisable both in topographic maps and aerial photography of the area. Therefore, after long and careful study, I believe that the fifth and most distant of these hills is likely to be the site where the gold was buried.

‘The signature at the bottom,’ Constable Hoi went on, ‘is that of a man called Yeuen Liang, who we believe was an emissary of the Dragon Head himself.’

Hoi turned to Nolan and said, ‘May I please look at the medal you displayed earlier?’

Nolan inclined his head and the woman carrying the box walked to the policeman, lifted out the medal, and placed it in his hands.

Constable Hoi examined both faces, then said, almost to himself, ‘This is fascinating, I had only seen photographs up to now.’ Then, loudly, ‘Once again, you have already heard my translation, but let me read it from the relic itself. On the back of the medal the inscription reads: The bearer carries the authority of the Dragon Head. Disobey at your peril. Was this carried by the same Yeuen Liang who authored the urgent message to Cooktown? It’s very likely, but we don’t know for sure.’

Nolan stepped forward again, at that stage, but waited while a particularly bright fork of lightning flashed; the resultant thunder pounded into the earth, and echoed from distant hills. ‘We believe that such a thing would not ever have been abandoned by the owner if he were still living. We believe that a fortune in gold lies nearby – 7000 taels is more than 9000 ounces – worth at least a million dollars at today’s prices.’ His face glowed in the firelight. ‘When we get the money, we will be unstoppable. The stakes are high. This money is not to make anyone rich, it’s to tear down the corrupt regime. The gold rightly belonged to the diggers of this country who opened up the Palmer River, and was stolen by the Chinese coolies who swarmed in and worked out the leases our forebears would have gone back to. We will take possession of the gold in the name of the Australian people.’

Just as the first heavy drops of rain began to fall, Sergeant Michael Green spoke for the first time. ‘We’ve brought aerial photographs from a survey we ordered. Using infra-red technology the images clearly show a series of graves surrounding the fifth hill identified by my colleague – and places where the earth was formed into what might have been very basic defences.’

Nolan took over again, pointing at a couple of white-bearded black faces, standing near the back of the group. ‘With our brothers of the Manyamarr and Bagaarrmugu people, who know this country better than their own hands, tomorrow or the next day we will find what we need to find.’

There was a roar from the crowd, and beers raised to the violent sky. Someone started up a ragged song – Waltzing Matilda. I recognised the singer from my visit to the fireside so many months before – a former schoolteacher with a love of poetry. The tune was taken up, rollicking around that crowd, the words as familiar as old hats.

As the storm moved in, the crowd filed away from the campfire and out along the rock bar just downstream from us, dozens of them, beers and jars of whatever moonshine they had made in their hands.

‘Jesus,’ Kat said. ‘They’re crazy.’

For a while, as light rain fell, Michael Green and the other cops stood with Nolan and finished their beers, all smiles, banter and laughter. My own feelings, however, were growing. A bitter anger that was stronger than the storm itself.

Lightning struck a tree up the bank a little way and it exploded into flame. A roar went up from the crowd and some raised their glasses to whatever force was at work there on that night. The flames flared skyward, in defiance of the rain, and I felt like I was bearing witness to Armageddon.

The police party, their work done for the moment, walked away from the group and started piling into the inflatable tender, tethered at the riverbank. Nolan followed them, still talking as the men took their positions, one of the constables with his hand on the outboard’s starter, in preparation to pull the rope,

‘Your choice,’ Kat hissed at me. ‘We either climb back into that hatch, or we swim for it now.’

In the painful orange light of the burning tree, I considered her words. Then I looked out at the conspirators in their little boat.

‘I’ve got another idea,’ I said.

©2024 Greg Barron

Read previous chapters here.

Continued next Saturday.

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