I checked my watch, it was 3am. I lay atop my sleeping bag, mosquito net tucked tightly under the mattress, listening to the night noises. Was it small animals scavenging around the camp fire, or something larger and more sinister? I could hear the waves pounding the beach, swept along by the prevailing winds. Close by, a frog croaked.
These sights and sounds were new to me. The night sky lit by stars instead of street lights. The rustling and scratching sounds of animals rather than cars and neighbours. I was in Bathurst Bay with my friend Paul, to fish, crab and generally have a good time.
His family took me into their home three months ago. My home was a war zone. Mum and I the causalities. Mum told me to leave. I asked her to move to Brisbane, start a new life. But she was scared, scared of Dad and his drunken outbursts. After I left we would meet for coffee. She tried covering the bruises, but her weary and haunted appearance belied her cheerfulness.
Something penetrated my thoughts, popping sounds. ‘Hey Paul, did you hear that?’ Paul was asleep on the bunk across the veranda.
There was movement inside the house. The door opened with a squeak so loud, I was sure anyone within a kilometre of the place would hear.
‘You boys stay here.’ It was Charlie, Paul’s Dad. Dressed in his old fishing gear with a shotgun in his hand, I watched him step quietly off the veranda. Paul woke at the sound of the door and his father’s voice.
‘Sounds like a boat in the Bay.’
‘Why the gun?’ I asked.
‘There might be crocs on the beach…drug traffickers.’
‘Drug traffickers?’ My voice raised a pitch.
‘He’s not going to shoot them, is he?’ Images of a gun battle on a remote beach sent shivers down my spine.
‘You boys move to the shelter.’ It was Terry. ‘Here, take this.’ He handed Paul a shotgun, ‘for emergency use only!’
I followed Paul, grabbing my pillow and sleeping bag. My stomach was doing fancy rolls as my brain tried desperately to catch up with the unfolding events.
‘What’s the shelter?’ But Paul was already lifting the mat near the fireplace. Underneath was revealed a hatch, the handle flush with the floor, its whereabouts perfectly concealed. He opened it. Stairs lead down into an abyss. Paul switched on his torch. I followed. He closed the hatch behind us, silence filled the cavernous void.
The light from the torch showed candles placed against the walls. Paul lit some then threw his sleeping bag down and sat.
‘Aren’t you concerned?’ I was having trouble processing our situation.
‘They’ll be fine.’
‘So what’s this place about?’ I was standing in a corner playing catch-up, my brain flashing from night noises heard from the veranda to standing in a hole under the ground with a shotgun against the wall.
‘This…it’s a precaution. Dad built this after our last visitors.’
‘Last visitors?’ My voice echoed off the walls.
‘Quiet. Last year some Asians turned up on the beach. Dad and Terry thought they were drug traffickers.’
‘What happened to them?’
‘Dad drew them a mud map to the main road. Told them to stay out of the swamp, then he and Terry spent the next two weeks building this place.’
‘Great, so what if your Dad and Terry aren’t ok?’
His look was withering, so I shut up.
‘Where’s the breeze coming from?’
‘What about creepy crawlies?’ I climbed into my sleeping bag.
‘There’s gauze over the vents.’
‘So where do these drug traffickers come from?’ I couldn’t help myself. Adrenaline was pumping through my body.
‘Dad thinks PNG, possibly Indonesia. Cape York is remote. Border enforcement is difficult and there are lots of uninhabited islands.’
‘How did they get here?’ Paul’s face had a look I’d seen on mum’s when I wouldn’t shut up about Dad; exasperated, fit to kill, but I ignored him.
‘The skipper threw them overboard.’
‘Right…of course. They swam to shore?’
‘Yea, amazing. Can’t believe a croc didn’t get them or a shark.’
We sat in silence, listening for any telltale noises. My mind played images of attacking crocs and sharks and contemplated how my short life could end ugly. Hours seem to pass. From the quiet rhythmic breathing in the corner I presumed Paul was sleeping. No such luck for me, my eyes and ears ever vigilant. From Paul’s prone body to the stairs and back again; listening and looking for signs of danger.
Much later I heard a noise. ‘Paul, can you hear that?’
‘What, what?’ Paul’s head was buried under his pillow.
‘That sound. A boat maybe? We’ve been here hours. Can’t we take a look?’
‘Ok, but be quiet and if I sense danger, we’re staying here.’
As we stood, my stomach charged up my throat. I swallowed back the vomit. Paul lifted the hatch a fraction, silence.
The mat, Terry must have replaced it after we went into the hole, shielded our movements and provided us with a safe retreat if necessary. We continued lifting, stuck our heads into the gap and listened.
Nothing, we climbed out, running onto the veranda. We scanned the beach. The sun’s rays sat upon the horizon lighting the ocean. Something was happening on the shore, but with the sun reflecting in our eyes, it was difficult to make out.
‘Get the binoculars quick.’
I handed them over.
He drew in a sharp breath. ‘Oh shit.’
His face turned ashen, I grabbed the binoculars.
‘Oh god, is that a crocodile? It’s eating something.’
‘We’ll have to wait, it’s too dangerous.’ He took the binoculars back.
I looked at him and knew I couldn’t keep the fear down anymore. I ran down the stairs, around the side of the house and heaved until nothing was left. What if that is Charlie or Terry? I berated myself for my weakness. Even Dad’s beatings paled at the sight of the carnage on the beach. I returned to the veranda.
‘You ok Sean?’ I nodded.
‘Can you see anything?’
‘If it was a boat you heard, it’s gone. Quick the croc’s moving.’ He raced inside. I heard him run down the stairs, and then he was back, shotgun in hand. ‘We can’t take chances; that croc may still be around. Let’s go.’
Paul stopped a hundred metres from the bodies. ‘This is close enough. Stay here, if you see anything yell.’
I kept my eyes straight ahead, afraid for what he might find.
‘They’re Asians.’ he called. ‘They’ve been shot and the croc’s fed on one.’
‘What should we do?’
‘Call the police.’
‘Where do you think your Dad and Terry are?’
Paul searched the bay with his binoculars. ‘I don’t know,’ his voice a whisper.
He called the police at Laura. His friend Sam answered. They would be here within the hour via helicopter. Sam asked us to move the bodies up the beach.
We found tarps in the shed and dragged three of them away from the shoreline.
The fourth, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t look at him.’
‘Sean, that croc is still out there and he’ll be back.’
I looked out to sea.
‘You won’t see him and you can’t outrun him. Grab another tarp.’
The man’s leg was missing, his head was chewed and he had a bullet hole in his chest. We dragged him onto the tarp by his clothes. Finally all four lay covered, high up the beach.
I sat down to rest, hoping to control my shaking body. ‘What should we do now?’
‘Search the area; see if Dad and Terry left any clues. Look for footprints.’
We walked the length of the beach, searching in rocky outcrops and rock pools. There were no prints other than our own, as the tide had ebbed and flowed overnight.
There was a creek on the other side of the tree line. We walked along its bank until we came across a large croc sunning itself. We quickly retreated leaving him undisturbed.
That’s when I heard a motor. ‘The police.’ I began to run.
‘Stop.’ In an instant I was face down in the sand, Paul on top of me. I struggled to get out from under him. ‘Quiet.’
I froze with the seriousness in his voice. Slowly he rolled off me and nodded towards the beach as three men jumped out of an inflatable.
‘Stay down. They don’t know we’re here.’
We crab crawled back towards the cover of the trees, keeping watch on the beach.
‘Look out for the croc. We don’t need him surprising us.’ Paul grabbed the binoculars.
‘What are they doing?’
‘What, for the bodies. They only have to follow the drag marks.’
‘Quick, they’re coming this way. Grab a branch and try covering our footprints.’
‘What about the croc.’ My voice gained an octave or two.
‘Would you rather them or the croc? There are caves not far. We’ll hide there.’
‘Shit, look out.’ I squealed like a girl as the croc lifted its head, smelling the air.
‘Can you hear that?’ Paul stopped and I ploughed into his back.
‘Hear what, the only thing I’m hearing is the pounding in my chest.’
‘That.’ Paul pointed to the sky. It was a helicopter.
The men on the beach turned, their shouts reaching over the chasm between the shoreline and us, ‘Helicopter, move.’
We watched mesmerised as the men pushed the boat into deep water, jumped aboard and sped off towards the point. The helicopter flew low over then. From our cover behind the trees we heard the distinct sound of shots and then the helicopter turned and came to land on the beach.
Three police officers jumped out. Paul raced towards them, shotgun waving madly in his hand.
‘Ok Paul put the gun down.’
‘Sam, I’m glad to see you.’ Paul handed over the shotgun. ‘Here you have it. I think those guys have Dad and Terry.’
Sam spoke to the helicopter pilot, ‘Call the Navy and tell them which way the inflatable went. They’re probably hiding in one of the small bays.’ Turning to us he added, ‘We’re going to take a look. Wait near the phone.’
We raced back to the house. Shortly after, the sound of shots echoed across the water, followed by an explosion. Paul and I looked at each other not game to say what we were thinking. Five minutes late the phone rang.
‘Sam, what was that explosion?’
Paul listened…I waited until he hung up.
‘Are they ok?’
‘Yea, drug smugglers. Their boat blew up. Sam said Dad and Terry are ok. They’ll be here shortly.’ The sound of the helicopter stopped him. We watched it land.
‘Hey Paul, your Dad’s on his way.’
‘Here they come.’ We watched the navy boat, a large black inflatable fly across the water. It came from the direction of the point. As it landed on the beach Charlie and Terry stepped out. ‘You ok Dad?’ Paul asked.
‘We’re fine son… just a few scratches. Thanks fellas.’ Charlie spoke to the helicopter crew.
‘No worries Mr Webb. We’ll see you in Cairns next week.’
‘We’ll be there Tuesday.’
The Navy crew retrieved the bodies. They would be identified in Cairns then returned to their country.
‘You boys ok?’ Charlie asked.
‘Yea Dad, we’re good, hey Sean?’
‘Yea, we’re good.’
‘Get us a couple of beers will you son, I reckon we’ve earned them.’
Over a few cold beers Charlie and Terry told their story.
‘When we got to the beach we walked into the men off the cruiser. They were dumping the bodies. We had no chance of getting away. They took us out to the boat and locked us in a cabin.This morning they forced us to move packages off an old boat onto their cruiser.’
‘When we finished they locked us in the old boat.’ Terry said.
‘Yea, we didn’t want to stay there.’ Charlie added.
‘It was an old junk…we found a wrench and prised open the hatch.’
‘That’s when we saw the explosives.’ Charlie said.
‘Lucky for us the Navy arrived. We jumped overboard. Reckoned we had a better chance in the water.’
‘Yea exploding boats aren’t good for the health.’
‘The Navy boys saw us jump and picked us up in no time.’
‘We’ll be on our way now.’ Sam said. ‘Take care.’
‘Thanks and thanks for looking after the boys.’
‘The boys looked after themselves. They did a great job.’ Sam replied.
That evening as I lay in my bunk, once again listening to the night noises, I realised how lucky we all were to be alive. The day could have ended disastrously. I made up my mind then, to no longer fear Dad. I would take care of Mum, keep her safe.
She deserved nothing less.