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The Legend of Big Red
By James Roy, Rae Dale
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2005 James Roy
All rights reserved.
I can't remember where Barney and I first heard about Big Red. It was just one of those things that the kids of Hunter's Gully talk about at school, or down at the skate ramp or outside Pompelmo's Take-away But one thing was for sure — while everyone in the local area knew about it, no one could ever say they'd definitely seen it.
Big Red was a fish, an enormous cod. If it did exist, it lived in Bailey's Swamp, which is, in fact, a section of the river that was dammed years ago to make a kind of long, snaking lake in the gully. It was probably given the grand title of 'swamp' when the river had risen only a few metres and was little more than a wide, marshy collection of muddy water. Maybe that's what happens when people get a bit over-excited and name things before they really know what they're talking about. These days, Bailey's Swamp is wide and deep, and the water's clean. It's a great place to muck about fishing, swimming, or paddling around on homemade rafts, and Barney and I have been going there for years. Sometimes we camp, or catch yabbies, sometimes we spot a platypus, often we just swim or drop from the rope-swing my older brother and his mates hung from the big angophora three years ago.
It's as if Big Red's legend has grown over the years, a bit like the Loch Ness monster. It got its name because of its colour, of course, although Dad says that the legend probably started when some drunk fisherman pulled out an old Heinz tomato soup can and decided to tell his mates that he'd actually hooked a giant cod.
People around here have been talking about Big Red for as long as I can remember. Pretty much every boy and most of the girls in the local area have at some time gone down to the weir to throw in a line, but of course no one's ever caught the big fella. Sure, people talk about nibbles and broken hooks and the water stirring at dusk, and one time a man with a shiny silver four-wheel-drive and a bad bushman's hat was flashing a photo around at the pub. It showed a kind of wet orangey fishy shape, but it just looked to me like a dodgy photo of a goldfish, taken from too close up.
There are parts of Bailey's Swamp you can't walk to, way upriver. I mean, you could if you were really determined, but it would mean climbing around cliffs and through spiky scrub, and it's never seemed like a very appealing idea, especially when you're carrying camping and fishing gear and other stuff.
Then Barney's big brother Tom went and bought a new canoe. It was made of carbon-monoxide fibre or some other hi-tech stuff, and was heaps lighter than his old fibreglass one, which he said Barney could have. Not that Barney and I minded at all that it was old. It was a canoe, and that's all that mattered, and it kept more water out than in. So Barney said thanks straightaway, before Tom had a chance to change his mind.
Suddenly, going upriver became an exciting idea. Imagine that — packing our gear into a boat and heading off to explore the uncharted reaches of the Swamp! It was me who suggested it, and Barney grinned widely and said, 'That's a mad idea! We can make maps and everything, and find a secret harbour, like in that book!'
He was right — it was a mad idea, and by that I mean good-mad, not crazy-mad. The way we saw it, there was only one major problem: my mum. We knew that Barney's mum wouldn't mind at all, so we decided to ask her first. Then we could go to my mum and say that Mrs Phillmore had already said it was okay. It's a bit unfair on my mum, I know, but when there's a waterway to explore, you need to use whatever methods are going to work. Just imagine if Captain Cook's mum had said he couldn't go exploring. 'It's far too dangerous, James. Who knows what you might run into?'
So we asked Barney's mum, and just like we'd expected, she said, 'Sure, so long as it's okay with Liam's mother.' We went to my place then, and after I'd got Mum a cup of tea and a biscuit, we asked her.
'Where? The Swamp?' she asked, before sipping her tea thoughtfully. 'How long for?'
This was promising. At least she hadn't said no, yet.
'Two nights, that's all,' I said.
'Two nights,' she repeated slowly. 'And was it going to be just the two of you?'
Not so good. In my head I quickly ran through the list of slightly older kids we could invite along, if that would make the difference between going and not going.
'Because I don't want you taking any girls up there or anything,' Mum continued.
Barney choked on his Milo.
'Girls?' I said. 'Mum, we're twelve!'
'Of course you are,' Mum replied. 'All right then, I guess you're old enough to be sensible.'
'Really?' said Barney. I frowned at him. He wasn't meant to sound so surprised.
'Yes, really,' Mum said. 'But only for one night.'
'And you'll take your father's UHF as well. For emergencies, you see. Think of it as a sextant.'
Barney and I looked at each other. Going for one night was definitely better than not going at all.
'Thanks, Mum,' I said. 'Can we take Otto?' The dog heard his name, and he wagged his tail until it became a crazed blur.
'Of course you can take Otto — he'd love it.'
'Awesome! Come on, Barney, time to prepare an Expedition Inventory,' I said.
Expedition Inventory for HMAS Stoutheart (for reconnoitre of Black Swamp)
Tent (the little red one)
Groundsheet (in case of tent lost overboard, and the onset of ineelement eneliment bad weather. Also to wrap bodies in before committing to the deep
) Rope — 2 lengths for securing groundsheet (also for keelhauling unruly crew and for securing harpoon to bow of vessel for Nantucket sleigh-ride)
Harpoon (to be fashioned from star-picket)
Bait (worms, bread, old prawns. Consider using bits of dead crew if necessary)
Spare batteries for sextant
Map-making stuff (exercise book, pencils)
Compass (magnetic kind, not the kind you draw circles with, Barney)
Billy and saucepan and knives and forks and bowls. And cups.
Food (decide on the day, but shouldn't rule out eating each other, after drawing lots to decide) Lots, for drawing (not sure what these are, but shall be acquired)
First aid stuff (Barney's mum to get)
Water (if sufficient room in hold of vessel)
'Is that it?' I said, as we read through the list. 'It doesn't look like much.'
'We don't really want all that much,' Barney replied. 'It's all got to fit in the vessel. Besides, it's only one night,' he added, looking a bit disappointed. He read over the list once more. 'What is a Nantucket sleigh-ride, anyway?' he asked.
'I think that's what they called it when olden-day whalers got towed along by a whale, just after they'd harpooned it,' I said.
'Weird name. Sounds like mad fun, though!'
'Okay, focus,' I said. 'Anything we've forgotten?'
'Matches and a torch.'
'Yep, good thinking,' I agreed, adding them to the list. 'Anything else?'
'No, I think that's about it,' said Barney.
'Good. I'll write out a copy for you, but you mustn't let anyone see the list. We don't want our plans falling into the wrong hands.'
'I shall guard it with my life, sir,' Barney said, giving me a salute.
'Very good. We should synchronise our watches,' I suggested.
'What does that mean?'
'It means we set them for the same time as each other,' I explained. 'Then we can plan a time for the expedition to leave on Saturday.'
'What time will it be?' he asked.
'How about oh-nine-hundred,' I said.
'Nine hundred what?'
I laughed. 'That's the time we're going to leave, you dope. Nine o'clock.'
'Oh. Nine hundred.'
'Right,' I said. 'And the other thing we have to decide is who's going to be the captain.'
'It's my vessel, so I'm the captain,' said Barney, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.
'Okay, and I'll be the navigator. But you'd better learn how to tell the time before Saturday. I reckon Captain Cook at least knew how to tell the time.'
'Captain Cook was murdered by the Americans,' Barney replied, as if that was supposed to be some kind of excuse for him not knowing how to tell the time properly.
'Captain Cook was killed by the Hawaiians,' I corrected him. 'Who weren't Americans then.'
'Whatever. He still died.'
I decided to let that one go.
I rang Barney on Friday night. His brother Tom answered the phone. 'All set for the big adventure?' he asked me.
'It's just a camping trip,' I said, trying to sound casual.
'Not planning on doing any fishing?'
'Fishing? Oh, I don't know. We might,' I said. 'Why do you ask?'
Tom sounded like he was about to laugh. 'Or are you just going to concentrate on the reconnoitre of Black Swamp? I hear that it's in desperate need of a good reconnoitre. Ask anyone.'
'I think you'd better put Barney on,' I said.
A short while later Barney picked up the phone. 'Hello.'
'Guard it with your life, eh?' I said, cutting him off. 'So I guess your life's not worth much.'
'The list. Has Tom seen it? Because he's talking about fishing, and reconnoitring —'
'He found it.'
'On the kitchen table.'
I sighed. 'You're not really cut out for this secretive thing, are you?'
'I guess not,' he admitted. 'So what did you ring for? Mum's about to wash my hair ... iest, manliest jumper, and I have to help her. Make sure it doesn't shrink.'
'She's about to what? Oh, never mind,' I said. 'So we're still on for tomorrow?'
'You bet,' Barney replied. 'We're going to catch him, you know. We're going to catch Big Red. I've got this feeling.'
'We're only going for two days.'
'I know, but like I said, I've got this feeling. It's kind of tingly, in my spine.'
'You sure that's not your mum washing your hair?'
I could hear the frown in his voice. 'Goodbye, Liam,' he said. 'I'll see you in the morning.'
I got up pretty early the next day. Mum and Dad were still asleep, but I went in and said goodbye. I got a kiss from Mum, but Dad murmured something about duffers drowning before rolling onto his side.
Otto and I reached Barney's place about seven-thirty. After we'd helped Tom lift the canoe onto the top of his car, we loaded the provisions into the back.
'Barnabus! Barnabus!' Barney's mum called as we were getting into the car. She came down the front steps in her dressing gown, holding a little red parcel. 'The first-aid kit,' she said, poking it through the window at Barney. 'And be careful, love,' she added, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
'I will, Mum,' he said, wiping his face with the back of his hand. 'Come on, Tom, let's go before she does that again.'
I couldn't help laughing when Otto jumped up on him and started licking him all over his face. 'He likes the smell of your shampoo,' I said, which earned me a rather filthy look by way of reply.
It took us about fifteen minutes to drive to our launching place, and we had the canoe loaded and ready to go by eight-thirty. It was pretty full, but it still floated fairly high in the water. 'All right, lads, off you go then,' said Tom, standing on the bank with his hands in his pockets. 'I'm sure there's plenty of reconnoitring to do.'
'Oh, we're not leaving until o'ninety clock,' said Barney.
Tom laughed. 'Until when?'
'He means oh-nine-hundred,' I explained.
'But you're packed. Why not go now?' Tom asked.
I didn't want to tell him that it was an expedition. 'High tide,' I said, nodding at him, one seafarer to another.
Tom bent down and scratched Otto behind the ears. 'High tide. Right.' Then, with a laugh and a shake of his head, he got into his car, waved once and drove away, leaving us there beside the mirror-surfaced water, the silence settling over us like a clear mist.
Barney and I stood on the bank looking at the loaded canoe. It felt like we did that for ages, just standing by the water, checking our watches from time to time. Finally Barney said, 'How long now?' I looked at my watch. 'Eight more minutes,' I said.
'Should we ...?'
'Yeah, let's go,' I agreed, reaching for my paddle.
'Wait. Before you get in, there's something we have to do,'
Barney said, and reaching into his bag he pulled out a bottle of ginger beer.
'What's that for?' I asked.
'To launch our vessel,' he said.
'Are you going to break the bottle over her nose?'
Barney laughed. 'That's a bit violent, isn't it? I thought I might just pour it over the front. What do you think?'
'Sounds like a good idea.'
'Can you say something official-sounding?' he asked.
'Like something you'd say if you were the prime minister, and you were launching a great ship.'
'Oh, okay,' I said, thinking. 'Okay, I think I've got something.' I cleared my throat. 'Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today —'
'It's not a funeral.'
'Okay then, try this. Dear friends —'
'Do you have to say 'dear' anything? It sounds a bit ... I don't know. Churchy, I guess.'
'You say something then,' I suggested. 'You're the one holding the champagne anyway.'
'Good point. All right then, here we go. 'Ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests, dogs, it is with great pleasure that I launch this mighty vessel, and name her ...' What did we call it again?'
'Stoutheart,' I said.
'I name her Stoutheart. God bless her and the souls that sail upon her.'
'That's pretty good,' I said.
'Thanks. I read it in a book.' Barney unscrewed the lid from the ginger beer and poured it over the front of the canoe. 'So now it's official.'
'It feels right, now,' I said. 'Like you say, official.'
Formalities out of the way, and with Otto perched on the very tip of the bow sniffing the morning air and licking at the ginger beer, we pushed off and paddled away from the shore. It was so quiet — just a few birds singing in the bush, and a kookaburra chuckling way off in the distance. The only other sound was the water bubbling under the front of the canoe, and the regular splish and dribble as we paddled across the glassy surface.
'Where to, Mr Navigator?' Barney asked from his position at the stern.
'That way,' I said, pointing upriver. 'I think we should go that way.'
'Very good, sir,' he said, bringing the bow slowly around. 'No, wait, I'm the captain, so you should be calling me "sir".'
'Whatever,' I replied. 'The Hawaiians can eat you first, then.'
The coolness of the morning soon burnt away under the summer sun, and after maybe half an hour of steady paddling we had to stop and take off our jackets.
'How much further?' Barney asked, wiping the sweat from his face.
I shrugged. 'How much further do you want to go? We're exploring, after all.'
'Have you been drawing the maps?'
'Do I look like I've been drawing maps? I've been paddling my bum off!'
'So have I! You're not the only one who's been paddling!'
'I know, just ... Shush!' I said suddenly, for just off to the right, in the shadow of a dead log, I'd seen a splash. It wasn't a big splash, little more than a disturbance in the water, but definitely some kind of movement. 'Did you see that?' I asked as Otto sat up straight, his ears and eyes focused on the spot.
'Yeah, I saw it,' Barney whispered. 'Do you think it was him? Do you think it was Big Red?'
I felt myself shiver with excitement as the ripples spread across the water towards us. 'I don't know,' I replied, 'but I think we've found our campsite. Just over there near that big white tree looks like a good spot. What do you think, Captain?
'Looks okay,' he said.
'I reckon we should go over there and unpack the canoe.'
'Yeah, and get the fishing gear and come straight back over here.'
I shook my head. 'I think we should get the camp set up first. Every expedition needs a base camp, and we won't feel like doing it later.'
Barney reluctantly agreed, and began to steer the canoe towards the bank, glancing back over his shoulder at the place where we'd seen the movement in the water. 'It was quite a big splash,' he said, several times. 'Do you think it was Big Red?' I shrugged. 'It's as good a clue as we've seen, don't you think?' 'I reckon it was Big Red.'
It's amazing how fast you can get a boring job done when there's something more exciting waiting for when you've finished. We had the camp set up in no time flat, and I was in the tent organising my bed when I heard Barney talking to someone. (He doesn't know that I know, but sometimes he pretends that he's a documentary-maker, and he does the voice-over for whatever he's doing at the time. Once I even heard him explaining in a serious voice why Otto was sniffing Mrs Davidson's dog's bum, except I think he had it all wrong. That couldn't be the reason — could it?)
I couldn't quite hear what Barney was saying, but pretty soon I knew that he wasn't playing film-makers, because I heard a second voice. It was a man's voice, and it wasn't one that I recognised. Besides, Otto was barking, and Otto doesn't usually bark at Barney, no matter how stupidly he's behaving.
I stuck my head out of the tent. Otto was leaning forward, his ears flat against his head, and he was making a very low growl in the back of his throat. Over by the edge of our clearing was a tall man. He was dressed in a cammo vest, and carried a long, shiny rifle. 'That your dog?' he asked, each word deliberate and slow, his voice deep and gravelly.
Excerpted from The Legend of Big Red by James Roy, Rae Dale. Copyright © 2005 James Roy. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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