Wild Dog River

Chapter Forty-one – Fighting Back


‘What do you mean?’ Kat hissed at me.

‘There’s a third option,’ I said, already moving towards the stainless-steel ladder that gleamed with orange flames from the burning tree on the northern bank. Taking the rungs two at a time I clambered onto the bridge deck of the Vanguard, and headed for the helm station.

It was murky dark, and the controls were not familiar to me. Kat arrived behind me while I used my eyes and hands to explore. The starter was a button, not a key. The throttle was a lever mounted to a control box on the right-hand side.

The view through the screen, from that height, was commanding. Facing downstream as it was, I could see the drinkers on the rock bar, the crowd whooping it up around the main fire, and the cops settling into their Zodiac inflatable, one of them pulling the starter.

Kat’s hand touched my shoulder. ‘Pete, don’t do anything rash …’

But the blood was pounding in my head. Caution was no longer the way forward. All the bile, infection, hurt and pain, was erupting to the surface and I could not be contained. Not even by her.

I pressed the button, too quickly at first. The starter whirred and stopped. I tried again, pushing and holding. Held on for five or more seconds but still the engine did not fire. I heard shouts from the shoreline, and they must have wondered what was happening by then.

Before my third attempt I noticed a switch beside the starter button, and guessed that it might control the glow plugs. I flicked it on, waited, then tried again. The engine caught at last, and settled into a smooth rhythm. It seemed to me that my heart was filled with the power of that engine. The boat became an extension of my body.

I turned to Kat, and said just two words. ‘Hold on.’

I slammed the lever forwards. The engine clunked into gear, the prop spinning, pushing the big hull against the tide. The forward motion created slack on the anchor line, and I prayed silently that the rope, and more importantly, the chain, would stay clear of the prop.

I felt a catch as the moving hull came up against the resistance of the anchor, then tore it from the seabed, as I powered upstream towards the rock bar.  As soon as I was confident that the anchor was free, I swung the wheel hard to the left, focusing on Sergeant Green and his underlings in their Zodiac near the bank.

I had no plan beyond that moment. I centred the cross bollard on the Vanguard’s bow on the little boat and pushed up the throttle, speeding up after the turn, reaching eight maybe ten knots and closing the distance fast. Kat, holding onto a grab rail beside me, uttered a final, piercing plea for me to stop. I did not deviate or shift my aim.

I wanted nothing less than to destroy these lying bastards, who would have left me to rot in prison simply because I was an inconvenience. 

‘Brace yourself,’ I said, grabbing the nearest hand grip for my own safety. I watched the men on the inflatable dive in both directions before the sharp hull of the Vanguard hid them from view. We struck, the Zodiac first, then the bank, with an impact that almost tore my hand from the stainless-steel tube it was curled around. Right then I didn’t care if I had killed or maimed Green or his men, but only glanced at Kat to make sure she was OK.

The hull had enough momentum to run partially up the bank, and the Wild Dog people were already converging, shouting and running. I wasted no time in slamming the throttle into reverse and piling on the revolutions. The power of the spinning prop, cavitating and surging, began to drag us backwards. Another thump as the bow dropped into deeper water and we surged out into the stream.

Redlining the poor old diesel, I pointed the Vanguard’s bows upstream and motored away at speed, leaving the riverbank – the entire camp – in an uproar. We were still dragging our ground tackle behind us, and I could feel its weight holding us back.

Kat clutched at my arm. ‘Oh God, what have you done?’

There was no answer to this. I had done what I needed to do. I was fighting back. I turned to her. ‘Get some food, matches, anything you can find that’s light to carry. Quick as you can.’

To Kat’s credit she did not waste time, heading down the ladder towards the galley. I hoped that there would be more than just snack foods in the larder. I was still hungry and knew that we would need both food and liquids if we were to survive.

 While she was gone, I felt a bump in the hull as the prop touched the anchor rope above the chain, followed by a dramatic reduction in revs as the multiple strands must have wound onto the propeller shaft. I reached for the throttle lever and slammed it back into neutral, waiting for a few moments while our own wake caught up and seesawed the hull gently.

Then, using a method I had seen other skippers use when the prop was fouled, I slipped the lever back into reverse – just for a heartbeat. I was about to try forward gear again when something told me that a little more was needed. Reverse again – just for an instant – then forward. Hard. There was a sudden catch – a momentary thing – and the hull now felt lighter, freer, though there was a new vibration that was disturbing. I guessed that we had bent a blade, or the shaft itself, in the process of cutting through the rope. Ignoring this, I edged the throttle back up to about three-quarter speed and drove on upstream.

 Kat returned to the bridge deck. ‘I got lots of food and things,’ she said, ‘and a shoulder bag to carry it. It’s all below, ready.’

‘Perfect,’ I said. But I had an idea that there might be other items on board that would be useful, if not life-saving. ‘Can you take the wheel? Just for a minute, and keep heading upstream?’

‘If all I have to do is steer, no problem.’

A few minutes below and I found what I was looking for. A gun rack. Unlocked. I chose a Lithgow .303 rifle that must have been thirty years old and a box of cartridges. I could scarcely believe that Green and his men had left the boat unsecured, with accessible weapons aboard. They were not only criminals and liars, but idiots. In the army or navy they would have been court-martialled.

Back in the main cabin I found a cardboard tube of charts and maps, a quick check told me that the collection included the survey maps showing the five hills that Constable Hoi had mentioned. I had no intention of leaving this behind, and I tucked the tube under my arm.

Passing through cockpit on my way back up, I heard the scream of Evinrude and Mercury engines behind us, audible even over the sound of the Vanguard’s big diesel. Looking astern, I saw three or four boats on our tail, clearly visible in the moonlight.

Wasting no more time, I stowed the charts, rifle and ammunition in a side pocket and headed for the ladder, worried. This was a very short estuary, and soon we would strike shallows, at which point the tinnies following us would gain the advantage.

Back on the bridge deck, Kat was doing a good job of keeping the Vanguard in the middle of the channel, but she handed the wheel over to me without a murmur.

‘I hope you’ve got a plan,’ she said.

‘Kind of.’ There were butterflies in my gut, but I felt free and as if I had taken some measure of control over my circumstances. ‘I bet you wished you were at work in Cooktown hospital.’

‘Maybe,’ she said, and I could see her smile, albeit a tentative one. God how beautiful were her eyes in the lights of the dash instruments.

We rounded a bend and I saw the ruffled water up ahead, maybe five hundred yards or so.

‘Shallows in the offing,’ I said. ‘Probably a rock bar. We’d never get through, so we’ll ditch this piece of shit on the bank as soon as we lose depth. Get ready to run with the supplies as soon as we hit, OK?’

‘Got it,’ she said.

I steered for the right-hand side, and gathered speed so we could barge up as far as possible. The hull bottom struck lightly for the first time and I aimed for the overhanging trees. Our momentum, along with the still-rising tide carried us on, while the hull ground along the bottom with a roar that I felt in my bones. The Vanguard started falling to the port side with the slope of the hull deadrise.

Tree branches scraped along the superstructure. A mast snapped clean in two. I cut the engine, not able to bear hearing it destroy itself. Finally, we stopped moving and the sound of pursuing boats was like a horde of giant mosquitoes out in the night.

‘Come on,’ I called, but Kat was already halfway down the ladder. I wasted no time in following her. In the steeply-angled cockpit I collected the rifle and cardboard tube, then headed for the port side. Kat was waiting for me, the supplies she had gathered hanging in a bag around her shoulder. The gunnels were now so low that it was easy enough to sit, turn and drop to the waist-deep river bed. Together we sloshed through the water to the shore, my jeans winding around my calves in the pebbled shallows.

Up onto the mud of the bank and finally firm ground, I made sure that Kat was beside me. We hurried away, not running, but at a fast clip, nonetheless.

It took us ten minutes or more to reach higher ground, and we paused, breathing hard to look back on the river, and the men surrounding the stranded and crippled Vanguard. Mist was rising from the river and swirling through the intervening air.

‘They’re going to be pissed off about that,’ said Kat.

I grunted a reply. She was right, but we had an advantage, in the darkness. They knew that I was infantry trained, and now I had a good rifle. None of them would take that fact lightly.

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

Read previous chapters here.

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