Wild Dog River

Chapter Forty-four – The Cave

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

Years passed before I could piece together the events which I will now relate, and even now my anger grows until my hands squeeze my pen as if to crush it. The rage I feel towards the perpetrators has no limits, and knows no bounds.

Strangely, back in 1973, I had some sympathy for the Wild Dog people. A conscript myself, I knew how the Australian government had sent us away to fight a war that few Australians wanted, then sent us home with our nightmares and broken relationships, piled-up debt and increasing restrictions about the way we lived our lives.

I knew from first-hand experience that it’s hard for a man who has been trained to be a warrior, to crawl around on his knees looking for a nine-to-five job that offers no hint of the more glamorous aspects of life in the military. It’s hard to sip wine like normal people when you are used to squeezing every drink possible into a forty-eight-hour stand-down in Vung Tau, alcohol helping you to forget how much you missed home and normal life.

Not all the Wild Doggers were veterans, however. Many were fringe-dwellers, attracted to the idea of rebellion. Some had been inside, some not. Others had spent decades on the margins of FNQ, working as deckies on trawlers or trout boats, crabbing or simply drifting. A few were politically motivated – genuine anarchists.

So, I could understand what they were on about. What I could not stomach was their methods. Murder, intimidation, cheating and lying. The way they had set me up and hung me out to dry was unforgivable, and so was what happened that night, while Kat and I forged our way along the edge of a plain near a forgotten river.

Back in Cairns, Mum had just been released from hospital. My brother Dave drove her home in his sunburst orange HQ Kingswood, polished, I imagine, to its usual lustre, the tyres blacked and chrome gleaming. One of the many good things about Dave, was that he looked after his possessions and the people he loved.

After dark, when Mum had settled down in bed, with the ceiling fan spinning, vainly trying to keep the heat out of the room, there was a rap on the door. One cop and a couple of Wild Dog hard men stood on the porch. In hindsight I’m guessing that Sergeant Green had used the HF radio on the stranded police boat, Vanguard, to contact them.

Dave knew, or guessed enough by then, to try to keep the visitors out, but they kicked in the door and shoved him against a wall. They woke and terrorised my Mum, but it was Dave they concentrated on. They wanted to know if I’d made contact and how I’d got out. Suzie, who was cooking up a pot of pea and ham soup, told them about the phone call I’d made from the outskirts of Cooktown, and that was enough to spur them into action.

They cuffed Dave, dragged him to a car and took him out of town, down a track along the Mareeba road. In an old farm shack, they looped a belt around his throat, and alternated choking him half to death with giving him enough air to talk.

They made Dave admit that he’d helped me. The boat. The outboard. The money and food. Then they beat the shit out of him. Not just an alley-behind-the-pub beating, but a prison-style, inch-of-your-life style beating. By the time they had finished, his face was a torn mess of broken meat, and three of his teeth were on the floor. He had multiple broken ribs, and a ruptured kidney. He could not walk, or talk, when an early morning pedestrian found him dumped outside a drapery shop on Abbott Street, back in Cairns.

When the ambulance came, they had to airlift Dave to Brisbane, leaving poor Mum a broken mess. Again.

***

The storm that had flashed so fiercely over the Wild Dog camp earlier, unleashed a barrage of heavy rain while Kat and I walked blindly away from the river. Bringing the rifle, a bag of provisions and Constable Hoi’s charts had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the burden slowed us down.

When the downpour finally stopped, leaving clear skies, a good moon and stars, we climbed to the nearest high ground, and stopped to rest. Sitting on a slab of rock, my clothes still soaking wet, I dug into Kat’s bag of goodies from the Vanguard, and opened a tin of baked beans. We passed it back and forth, sharing the spoon until the can was empty.

There was a flash of light as Kat flicked on a small torch she had also souvenired from the boat, using the momentary beam to consult the watch she still wore on her wrist. ‘It’s just after ten,’ she announced. ‘If they’re not going to follow us in the dark, maybe we’d better find somewhere to rest for a while. You’ve taxed those wounds to the limit. It’s not a good idea to keep pushing.’

 ‘We might have to,’ I said, trying to think of the best path forward. Not knowing what they had just done to my brother, I still thought that Nolan and his minions could be bargained with. That they were rational. I should have known otherwise. War changes some men. Makes them think that the laws of the jungle are laws that they can live by. I went on, ‘By morning they’ll swarm in here like ants. They’ve got plenty of people who can track. The rain will help us, but …’

I could see Kat hugging herself – with wet clothing, the breeze was cool. ‘You’re frightening me.’

‘Sorry. I’m just trying to work out what to do. We need a bargaining chip.’

I could hear Kat’s breathing. ‘I hope you don’t mean me,’ she said.

‘Of course not. What I mean is, we’ve got seven or eight hours until daylight. What if we found this hoard of Chinese gold first? Then made some conditions before we let them have it? Such as letting us go, maybe they could give us a fast launch to head home in?’

Kat didn’t laugh, though the plan sounded far-fetched, even to me. ‘It’s a pretty good idea,’ she said, ‘except for the difficulty of finding the gold. You heard the man earlier tonight, they’ve spent months looking. What makes you think that we are going to stumble on it in a few hours?’

‘Nolan didn’t know where to look. But Constable Hoi’s translation work – and the aerial survey – has tipped the balance. We’ve got that information now and they don’t.’ Kat remained silent, and I kept on. ‘We don’t have anything else going for us. They’ll expect us to head for the hills.’

‘If you think it’s worth trying. Where should we start?’

‘Here, switch that torch on so I can see what I’m doing.’ I kneeled and fumbled for the tube of charts, slipping the roll out, still dry, from inside. There were half a dozen sheets in all, and I shuffled through until I found a 1:100 000 topo map on which they had marked the important sites. Maps were second nature to me, and it didn’t take me long to work out where the Vanguard was now stranded on the river, then our route across the plain to this ridge. ‘You remember how Constable Hoi talked about the five hills?’ I asked.

‘Yes, I remember.’

‘Well, it just so happens that we’re sitting on the second one of them now.’

I continued to study the map, particularly where someone had marked an X with CAVE printed beside it, barely a kilometre from our current position.

Kat was looking over my shoulder. ‘That’s where this Yeuen Liang guy left the note that was found, right?’

‘Exactly. That’s the place to start.’

Kat switched off the torch while I rolled the charts, and I could sense her hesitation. ‘But the Wild Dog people would have gone over that cave with a fine-tooth comb. Is there any point?’

‘We need to follow the story. I want to see the cave.’ I slung the rifle, tucked the charts under my arm and started walking. ‘After that we’ll head for the fifth hill and see what we can find.’

***

The cave was, like most sandstone formations, more of a deep cavern, rounded out from the cliff face by driving rain from storms over millions of years. The entrance was shrouded in ferns and small fan palms, so that the moon disappeared as soon as we entered. Kat flicked on the torch, and I think we both experienced a moment of wonder when we saw the towering walls and domed stone ceilings.

The old tribes had left their marks on the walls in white clay and ochre: handprints, swirling snakes, spears flying, goannas and human figures in groups or alone. The floor, however, had been dug up all over, with the marks of picks and shovels on the stone, and much of the sandy floor material heaped into piles. Kat was right – the Wild Dog people had searched the cave thoroughly.

 I sat down on the edge of a platform, my sandshoes in the dust layer that crunched with old charcoal under my feet. ‘So this is where they found the Chinese fella’s note,’ I said. ‘It’s amazing that it survived intact for so long.’

‘It’s dry in here,’ said Kat, ‘and protected. Also, it was sealed in wax, remember? That would be pretty much airtight.’ She paused. ‘And if you want to understand his story, don’t call him “that Chinese fella.” You might just as well call me “that Greek-Australian girl.” Constable Hoi said his name was Yeuen Liang. That’s what we should call him.’

I didn’t answer, but I knew she was right. ‘What did he write in his note again?’

‘I can’t remember exactly, something like: “To the Cooktown people, I send an urgent message. Lots of things have befallen us since we left the Palmer River. I have in my possession seven thousand taels of gold, buried in the fifth hill. You should send ships as soon as you can.”’ She paused, then, ‘bear in mind that the “fifth hill” thing was Constable Hoi’s interpretation of the text – he said that it used the character for Wuxing, which could refer to wood, water, fire, metal and earth.’

I smiled, ‘You’ve only been involved in this for a few days, and you know more about it than me.’

We sat in silence for a while, and I tried to reach back through the years – to find a connection with this Yeuen Liang – the man who had most likely carried and lost the bronze medal that had caused me so much pain. It seemed to me that he had unfinished business here. Maybe, after a hundred years, Kat and I could put it to rest.

‘We’d best get to that fifth hill then,’ I said, ‘and we’ll see if Constable Hoi is right.’ I unrolled the charts for another look, picking up a bearing, to the north-east of here. Direction-finding would be easy enough with the Southern Cross out in the sky.

‘How far?’ asked Kat.

‘Three klicks, a little more maybe. We’ll be there in an hour, well before the moon sets.’

©2024 Greg Barron

Read previous chapters here.

Continued next Saturday.

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