Short Story: Island in the River

By M. Thorpe Clark

Published in the Sydney Sunday Herald, "Playtime", page 6

20 February 1949

Paid £7-7

“Keep away from that island,” William Redvers said coldly, his dark face colourless and unfriendly. “That’s a hard and fast rule I make for chaps who work here on River Island Station.”

Jim Farrow, the new 17-year-old drover, stared across at the small island, covered with timber and scrub, that lay in the middle of the wide-mouthed river. A quarter-mile farther on the river itself was lost in the tumbling waters of the ocean.

“Is this where your other stock-man was drowned, a few months ago?” he asked quietly.

The older man looked at him sharply. “No,” he said shortly. “That accident happened on the beach a mile from here – he was surfing. He evidently struck a dumper and fractured his skull. Jacky, the cook, and I found him washed up on the beach.”

“Was he a good swimmer?”

“Course he was a good swimmer!” Redvers was angry. “Cut out the questions. Just remember this river’s treacherous. It’s a death-trap of weeds and growth – and man-eaters, too, that come in with the tide. So don’t mistake me when I say – keep away!”

It was because Jim hadn’t mistaken him that he lay in the darkness now, beneath a clump of tea-tree on the river-bank, his eyes glued to the dark shape of the island.

River Island Station embraced a lonely tract of country that stretched on either side of the river for several miles, and swept inland as far as the distant chain of hills. Not even fishermen came near it.

William Redvers managed the properly for an absentee owner but, though there was enough work for at least two more men, he carried on with only Jim and Jacky, the blackboy cook. Jim had an idea that, if possible, he’d have dispensed with them, too.

What intrigued Jim most was that Redvers, beginning his day at 5 a.m., would work like a crazy thing until early afternoon. Then he’d eat a quick lunch and go off to his room, not to be seen again until late evening, when he’d emerge, bleary-eyed, for another meal. Jim was convinced that he slept away those hours of daylight.

“But,” the boy pondered, “if he sleeps all day, what does he do at night?”

It was to answer that question that he lay now under the wet tea-tree. He believed the island held the answer. So far he hadn’t been across. It hadn’t been worthwhile braving the dangerous waters without being sure he would catch Redvers red handed.

Jim had lain there about half an hour when he saw the dark form of a man come silently from the direction of the homestead. It was Redvers. Carried on his head and supported by his hands was a long narrow shape. Jim guessed it to be a canvas canoe, no doubt hidden in daytime behind the locked door of one of the store-sheds.

He stretched his neck to watch Redvers launch his frail craft and set off for the island.

Crossing the water wasn’t going to be as simple for him. He hadn’t risked building a raft.

The black, silent water seemed to leer at him. He had seen the feathery innocent-looking tendrils of vines lying on its surface, and he had a fair idea of their underwater strength. Had even seen the grey periscope of a fin gliding downstream! It was enough to keep most people on the river bank!

He stripped off coat, trousers and boots, leaving on only singlet and shorts. Around his shoulder he wound the length of rope he’d brought with him. Then he lay flat, pushed off from the shore without even the tinkle of a splash, and struck out purposefully. He had his own reason for braving the depths.

It was a 50-yard swim and he closed his mind to the memory of that grey fin–. Once, in mid-stream, a drifting log struck him, bearing him under, and he felt the pull of the vines. He had to fight to free himself and almost regretted the risks he had taken.

Then he was on the island. He went forward silently. He wasn’t surprised when, hidden by a curtain of tea-tree, he came to the dark shape of a hut. It appeared to be in complete darkness. There were no windows and the only break in the four walls was the door. locked on the inside. That told him Redvers was inside. He settled to wait. Now and again, he heard dull, thumping sounds that seemed to come from the very earth beneath his feet.

He seemed to have waited an eternity when Redvers cautiously opened the door. A shaded hurricane lamp hung from his hand. In its dim glow, Jim saw the pulley and winch, the fresh mound of gravel and clay, the barrow already heaped, ready for the journey to the river’s edge. A mine! Gold, obviously–. The district had once been the scene of a minor gold-rush. No doubt, in a concealed spot, Redvers had a miner’s cradle hidden, and probably did his sluicing in the grey hours of dawn.

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Island in the River The Sunday Herald, Sydney, 20 February 1949.

Jim lunged forward with a swinging right. But Redvers was quick, too. In that single instant before impact, he had drawn a revolver and, if the boy’s blow hadn’t thrown him off his balance, his bullet would have hit the mark. Instead it spent itself harmlessly in the air. Jim’s next crack sent the revolver clattering out of Redver’s hand.

They fought then. The only sounds were the heavy thud of blows, laboured breathing, sharp grunts and swift intake of breath. Redvers was thin and tall but he was sinewy and though. Jim, despite the breadth of his shoulders and rippling muscles, found that it was an all-in fight.

Then suddenly it was over. Redvers slithered to his knees and, half-dazed himself, Jim grabbed the length of rope he’d brought with him. In a few seconds he had his adversary bound fast.

“Nice set-up you’ve got here,” he said, “the police will be interested when they arrive.”

“The police–!”

“Yes – I’ve made friends with Jacky – that last time you kicked him turned him into a disloyal servant, I’m afraid. We’ve arranged that if I don’t return to the homestead at dawn, he’ll ring the police. We shouldn’t have long to wait – there’s a greyness in the east now–.”

“But it won’t be for stealing gold that they’ll take you into clink – it’ll be for – murder!”

“What d’ye mean?”

“I was away droving in the ‘Centre’ when my brother’s ‘accident’ happened–.”

“Your brother!”

“It was several months before I even knew that he was dead. By that time the coroner had brought in a verdict of ‘accidentally drowned while swimming in a heavy surf’.”

“Yes – yes – that’s what happened to him!”

“No – that’s not what happened to him, Redvers. What really happened is that he discovered the secret of your gold mine – on your employer’s property! – and, being an honest chap, wouldn’t listen to reason. I knew there was something fishy about AI’s death – that’s why I came after a job here–.”

“You can’t prove it!” Redvers I snarled.

“I can – You see my brother saw a youngster drowned in the river back home when he was a kid himself. He never lost his fear of water. He wouldn’t even try to learn to swim–.”