No Sunlight Singing

Book One, Chapter 2

Daylight was failing and the heat of the day wilted under the onslaught of a cool night breeze. Returning from the store, tobacco supplies replenished, Peter and Dick shivered as they turned a corner and the wind searched keenly through thin shirts.

‘Feels like winter coming up,’ said Dick with an exaggerated shiver. ‘S’pose you get it pretty sharp here.’

‘Too right,’ agreed Peter. ‘It gets bitter at nights. There’s nothing to break the wind. An’ it won’t be long now.’

Whitewashed, the four huts stood out stark against the gathering gloom. The two men stopped at the first hut where Sam, the gardener-butcher, sat on the doorstep. A pudding-faced hulk of a man, his knees only just showed in front of his stomach and the massive shoulders spread from jamb to jamb of the doorway.

‘You’ve capped the lot now, Sam,’ said Peter. ‘Where in the name of God did you get that beast you killed tonight? I reckon shammy leather’s tender after that steak.’

‘Tell the boss that,’ grunted Sam. ‘I killed that big stag he’s been at me to kill for six months.’

‘That’s a bit rough, ain’t it? Feeding us a thing like that.’

‘Well, you know what he is. He’d have me kill old bulls or anything for youse blokes. But it wasn’t only because of him naggin’, there wasn’t anything any better. He did have a bit o’ meat on him, even if it was tough. None o’ the others had anything on ’em at all. Things is getting bad.

‘But youse blokes should know more about that than me.’ Sam tilted his head as far as his thick neck would allow. ‘Youse a been checkin’ up for days now, haven’t yez?’

Peter was carefully emptying tobacco from a tin he had just opened into a rubber pouch. ‘Oh, yeah,’ he admitted, ‘we gotta give it to you. There’s not much killers about. We never seen much beef, did we, Dick?’

Dick’s long form folded up as he squatted on his heels. ‘Beef, did you say? We never seen nothin’ fit for boilin’ down even. This country’s worse than I expected. It’s worse’n over west.’

He blew out a stream of smoke and studied the end of his cigarette thoughtfully. ‘You know,’ he said slowly, ‘things is so bad I can’t see why th’ old man put me on. You’d expect him to be thinkin’ o’ puttin’ men off.’

Peter’s feet shuffled in the dust, and his shoulders moved uncomfortably. ‘Oh, well,’ he muttered, ‘I s’pose he thinks things might break.’

Sam looked up and down the yard and then leaned forward. ‘Look, mate, I’ll give yer the drum,’ he said, lowering his voice impressively, ‘don’t expect nothin’ at this place. Most managers’d give yer the drum if they didn’t have much. They’d say it might pay yer to look further. But th’ old man’d use yer up if he on’y had a week’s work. Mind you, I ain’t said nothin’. ’ His voice now sounded anxious, as if he was afraid he had said too much. ‘Yer know yer own bizness best, but I just thought—if yer thought there might be somethin’ somewheres else. . .’

Dick waved his hand, smoke trailing from his fingers. ‘Don’t worry, I didn’t expect much from this place. All the same,’ he hastened to add, ‘I appreciate you givin’ me the tip. An’ you needn’t worry, I won’t say nothin’. ’S a matter o’ fact it suits me. I gotter put in a few weeks, an’ I didn’t want to go to a good place to spoil it for after.’

Peter’s face showed his relief at not being drawn in to give an opinion about the job. He, too, folded down on to his heels, to keep himself in the conversation.

Dick threw his butt away and reached for more makings. ‘Yer see, I gotter wait for me mate,’ he went on. ‘In a month or so’s time he’s gonner snatch it, an’ we’re off up to Darwin for a holiday. If I go on me own I don’t get past the first pub—hundred to one. If I’d ’a’ went on past here I’d ’a’ landed in the pub at Holborn Waters, an’ I’d ’a’ still been there when me purse cut out. But him—Sam they call him, like you, Sam, on’y he’s long an’ thin. Yer might ’a’ struck him, he useter do a lot o’ drovin’. ’

Both men nodded their heads.

‘Well,’ said Dick, ‘if yer know him yer know how solid he is. Obstinate? jeez!’ He shook his head in admiration. ‘Obstinate as Hell, he is. Well, he says we’re goin’ to Darwin, an’ if he says it, we’re goin’ to Darwin. That’s if I keep out of a pub till then. That’s why that blue I had nearly gummed it up. I was real arsy to pick up a job here.’

Peter turned to Sam. ‘You see, Sam, Dick had a blue with the boss at the last place in ’36 about handlin’ blacks. He was tellin’ me—an’ he says how’s this boss? Eh, how is he, Sam? How about tellin’ him how you an’ the boss broke that Johnny in? That’s a good story, but you can tell it better’n me.’

Sam’s eyes gleamed dully, and suety cheeks creased in a grin, as he laboriously stretched out his legs. ‘Aw, yeah, it’s not a bad yarn,’ he said. ‘I s’pose I should know it best, seein’ I was there.’

Looking leaner in contrast with Sam’s unwieldly bulk, the stockmen shuffled back to prop themselves against the wall of the hut as the hoarse, wheezy voice launched into the story.

‘You seen that big black that works for me, I s’pose, that Johnny?’

Dick nodded. ‘Yeh, I know the one you mean.’

‘Well, he come here ten year ago, I s’pose, straight from the bush. I remember the copper at Holborn Waters sent him out with two more. Th’ other couple was stockmen but I reckon the copper must’ve just sent this one for a joke, just to give us some fun. He must’ve known that a full-grown bush black don’t break in to station work too easy. Anyway, he went all right for a while. Jeez, he could track.’ Sam shook his head in admiration. ‘He was a bobby dazzler. Some o’ th’ other blacks from up his way reckoned he had a rep a mile wide.

‘But one night he went a-missing. We’d all the blacks out looking for tracks but they couldn’t find none. Smires give a couple of ’em a lacing, reckoned they wasn’t trying.’ His eyes nearly disappeared in a huge grin. ‘Turned out it wasn’t their fault. The dumb-bell had headed straight back for Holborn Waters. O’ course, nobody’d looked on that track.

‘First thing we know, Smires gets word from the copper he has him. He’s got clear away, done just on two hundred miles in two days, then, innocent as you like, he walks up to the copper of all men. So Smires gets me an’ we set off in the ute to collect him.’

The huge body leaned forward and Sam’s voice had a note of admiration. ‘He was a good man with blacks, that copper. I’ve heard some good tales about him.’

‘Yeh,’ broke in Peter, ‘I knew him. He was good, all right.’

‘Anyway,’ Sam went on, ‘we get out an’ the copper sez: “Well, Mr. Smires, I got your man. He should be softened up a bit by now.”

‘ “Why,” sez Smires, “did you do him over?” ’

‘ “Oh, no,” the copper sez, “I just laced him over the head with the chain to teach him manners, but I left him for you. But he hasn’t had a drink since he got here, and God knows how long before that. So that should bring him back to the field a bit. Bring him out,” he yells to the trackers.

‘They bring him out, sulky-looking as you please. He didn’t have the leg-irons on, just a chain from the cuffs. I go to grab him and away he goes. Or woulda went only the chain wraps round my leg. He hit so hard we both come down and that damned chain ringbarked my leg.’ Sam rubbed his leg thoughtfully. ‘Peeled the skin off right round, it did. Well, we all piled on to him, and I believe he’d ’a’ beat us then, only I sunk the knee into him. He went down and I ground the knee in a couple times more for my sore shin.

‘The copper wants to lend us the bracelets, but Smires laughs. “I know a better trick than that,” he sez. So the copper takes the bracelets off and we tie a couple o’ lengths o’ cord, one on each wrist. Then we throw him in the ute, drag his arms out tight each side, and tie the cords down the side of the ute.’

‘How’s that, Dick?’ Peter put in with an admiring laugh. ‘Good idea, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ grunted Sam. ‘There never was nobody could teach Smires much. “There,” he sez, “that’ll hold the bastard.” So we knock off a couple of bottles the copper had, and set sail. An’ did we go. On the rough patches we only touched the ground every ten yards or so. If it’d been a white man in the back, his arms woulda been pulled out at the roots.

‘When we get here Smires gets a stock-whip and we untie the cords. Smires takes one and I take hold the other.

‘ “Now, you bastard, we’ll see how good you are,” sez the boss, and he gives him a lash with the whip. D’you know, that black was still having a go. He jumped out of the truck straight at Smires. But when he’s in the air I give a jerk on my rope and he lands flat on his face, and I jump on the back of his neck.

‘ “Drag him over here, Sam, and we’ll string him up,” sez the boss.

‘So we drag him to that open shed, threw the ropes over the rafters, and hoist him up. We heaved him up till his toes was just touching the ground and then Smires into him with the double of the stock-whip. He was a strong man in them days, Smires, and when he stopped his eyes was popping out and he was trembling.

‘The black’s face was all swelled up, but you could still see his eyes and they was still glaring red.

‘That’s what had Smires in. It had him nearly crying; the black wasn’t broken.

‘ “I can’t hurt him, Sam,” he gasps. “Get me a pair of hobbles.”

‘So I get him a pair of hobbles and he into the black with the chain. He belted him with that till he couldn’t raise his arm.

‘Now the black’s face was as red as his eyes had been, and so swollen you couldn’t see his eyes any more.

‘Smires couldn’t speak; he moaned. “That’ll hold him. Cut him down.”

‘So I cuts the ropes and let him drop.’ Sam paused and blinked at the others. ‘D’you know, I looked round as I walked away, and he was on his feet.’

‘Oh, you can’t hurt the bastards,’ said Dick. ‘That’s a beaut, that way of tying ’em in a truck. I never heard of that one before.’

‘It fixed Johnny,’ said Sam. ‘He never tried to run away no more. But he’s never been much good since. Oh, I have him in the navvy gang with th’ old gins. He’s all right for that, but he don’t seem all there at times.’

‘Punch-drunk,’ put in Peter, ‘like a pug.’

‘Yeh, I s’pose that’s it. But what I was going to say, besides him there’s no other black has tried to run away from here since that day. It put the fear of God into the lot of ’em.’

‘You gotta be on top of ’em,’ said Dick. ‘Right on top of ’em all the time.’

He stood up and stretched and Peter followed suit. ‘Yes,’ he said, shaking his shoulders, ‘it’s getting too cold out here. It’s about time we made a move.’

By now the night had fallen, but the full moon, peering over the homestead roof, lit the yard with an eerie radiance.

‘Ah, here’s Carl coming now,’ said Peter. ‘That pump must’ve been hard to fix this time. Well, Carl,’ he added, ‘you do knock off work sometime.’

‘That ploody pump! I fix it one of those days,’ exploded Carl. A tall Norwegian, his blond hair shone silver in the moonlight.

‘Well, what are we doing? Are we going to have a game of five hundred tonight?’ asked Peter.

‘I’ll be in it,’ said Dick.

‘Me too,’ said Sam.

‘I be in anything,’ added Carl.

‘O.K. Then come on, into our hut. Are you coming, Cec?’ he called to a thin, gangling youth who was hanging back shyly.

As they all trooped into the hut, it looked as if the sides would have to go. There didn’t seem to be room for much more than the two untidy camp-beds.

‘Hold everything,’ called Peter. ‘Let’s get the lamp lit first.’ Two smoky hurricane lanterns soon cast a murky light on the scene. ‘Ah, that’s better. Now let’s get the mosquito nets fastened back out the road. And pull that box into the middle before you all sit down.’

Peter and Dick dropped on to the beds. ‘Here, Sam,’ said Peter, ‘you sit on my bed. Me’n Carl’ll play you and Dick. I reckon we can do you tonight.’

Sam lowered himself carefully on to the bed, which complained vigorously, but bore up under the strain.

Carl sat down alongside Dick. ‘You’d better watch for a bit,’ Peter said to the youth. ‘Sit down on Dick’s bed, mine’s carrying overweight already with Sam on it.’

‘That’s all right,’ answered the youth. ‘I have a mag to read.’ He was of that strange breed, the jackeroo.

‘Oh, before we start,’ said Peter. ‘I got a letter about young Eric. You know I wrote to a mate of mine in Darwin to look him up. Well, he found him in hospital, and he’s likely to be there a while. They don’t think there’s anything worse than concussion wrong with his head, but his collar-bone’s broken, and his right arm; and of course, he’s got a few yards of bruises and skin off. The mate says he’s going on fairly well, and he’s keeping him supplied with weed, but he thinks he’s doing a fair bit of worrying about his folks.’

Carl paused in the act of putting the makings together and waved the cigarette-paper vigorously. ‘That goot. That ploody goot. I ban think he finish when I see him. By Yesus, he was ploody crook. But what wrong his folks?’

Before he answered Peter groped under the bed and produced an empty tobacco tin. He opened it up and put the two pieces out on the box. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘put your butts and matches in there. You get throwing ’em about and the mosquito nets suffer. Mine’s got enough holes in it now.’ He went on. ‘About Eric’s folks, I know what the trouble there is. He’s only got a mother an’ a sister. The mother has a few bob, a pension or something, that’s enough to keep her. But the sister’s goin’ to college, and though she’s got a scholarship she still needs some money. Eric, of course, didn’t get much here—twenty-five bob a week or something—but he used to send nearly the lot home, and it just managed to keep ’em going.’

Peter paused and looked keenly at the others. ‘I think we should sling in to help. It’s a tough world for a woman and a girl to face, and Eric’s a very decent kid. I’ll put in a quid, anyway.’

‘Ya,’ said Carl, nodding his head vigorously. ‘My ploody oath, I put in quid.’

‘Yeh,’ grunted Sam, as he gingerly eased his bulk to a better position on the end of the bed, ‘put me down for a quid.’

Dick looked round at the others and spread his hands slightly. ‘Well, I don’t mind puttin’ in, but what’s the strong of it? Who’s Eric an’ what happened to him?’

‘Of course,’ replied Peter, ‘it was before you came here. Well, Eric was a jackeroo here, been here a year or more, a good kid too, he was picking it up fast. About a fortnight ago we was shifting some cattle from round the seventeen-mile bore. It’s about the only bit of decent feed left, and we was clearing everything off it so’s we could put the breeders on. We was ridin’ along spread out when I hears a yell and looks over, there’s Eric on the ground and hanging by the leg from the stirrup. His horse had shied or tripped, and dumped him. When I looked he was just breakin’ into a gallop and heading for a patch of scrub. You know that scrub just north of the bore, it’s not very big but it’s thick and rough. I was too far away to do anything in time, and I thought, “Jeez, he’ll be bashed to pieces.”

He looked across at Dick, who was lolling sideways to avoid the folds of the mosquito net. ‘You know where I mean?’ He waved his cigarette. ‘You was out there th’ other day.’

Dick nodded. ‘Yeh, I got a good idea.’

‘Well, I’m racing across,’ continued Peter, ‘when all of a sudden I see a streak coming up behind Eric’s horse. It’s this black Paddy, at a mad gallop. He couldn’t get him before he reached the scrub, but he was right on his tail, and he never slackened pace. When I get there he has the two horses and he’s kneeling down alongside Eric. I’ll guarantee they weren’t much more’n thirty yards inside the scrub.’

Peter’s voice had a note of awe in it. ‘It’s the greatest bit of riding I ever seen or heard tell of. Eric was lucky the black was there. Nobody else could have done it.’

Cecil piped up. ‘But I can’t see what’s so wonderful about galloping after a horse and stopping it.’

The stockman looked at the youth pityingly. ‘Well, young feller, you try gallopin’ through scrub some day. Then try racing alongside another horse that hasn’t got a rider and is picking a track for itself. Then go and try it where this happened. I followed the tracks in. In one place they go between two solid little trees where you’d think there’s hardly room at all for a rider. I reckon the black must have been under his horse’s belly. Every time I’m near there I go and have another look. I’ll bet you can’t find another man in Australia to ride through there at full gallop, and I’ll throw the “Man from Snowy River” in. Anyway, to get back to Eric. He was out to it and in a pretty bad way. We got the boss to bring him in here and get on to the flying doctor by the pedal wireless. He flew in and picked him up.’

‘Well,’ said Dick, ‘if it’s good enough for you blokes to put in, I’ll be in it, but I’ve got no cash. I’ll have to get on to the boss. Anyway, I suppose he’ll be putting in too, won’t he?’

Carl and Peter looked at each other and grinned, and even Sam’s fat face creased a little. ‘Oh, yeah!’ he grunted.

‘You’re an optimist,’ laughed Peter, ‘if you think either Smires or the firm’ll put in. You know how tough these English meat kings are, and Smires himself is about the lousiest bastard this side of the black stump. But we’ll have to get him to send a cheque for the total. None of us has any cash.’

He started to check on his fingers. ‘Oh, yes, and Al, the head stockman, he’ll be in it, and Basil, and I think we’ll get something off the babbler.’

‘I’ll give you a pound,’ chimed in Cecil.

‘You can’t afford a quid,’ said Peter. ‘Give us a half a note; that’ll do you.’

‘But what about Paddy, the black fellow?’ asked Cecil. ‘If he did such a marvellous thing, he should be entitled to something.’

Peter snorted. ‘Him, he’s a black. You can’t spoil ’em. He did all right. I told him he’d done a good job and gave him a stick of nicki-nicki. Sam here gave him a good hunk of beef, didn’t you, Sam!’

‘Yes,’ said Sam. ‘I give him enough to feed him and his gin for a week.’

‘By the way, Dick, did you see Smires about the brat you clipped?’ asked Peter.

‘No. I went up to the house, but he was just getting ready to go out, so I didn’t bother. I seen the half-caste piece—what a slasher! It looks as though the old man might have done a bit of good. I’ll bet there’s more in her guts than went in through her mouth.’

‘So I reckon,’ said Sam. ‘She’ll soon be going walkabout.’

‘What d’you mean?’ asked Dick.

‘Smires will soon chase her,’ replied Sam.

‘It’s a fad of Smires,’ explained Peter. ‘Every time he gets one in the family way he chases ’em off the station before they drop the brat. Nobody knows why for certain, but some reckon he don’t want his own kids running round the place. That don’t seem right to me.’ He shook his head. ‘I think he’s afraid it mightn’t be his own kid. Sam says that years ago he had a half-caste stud who dropped a piccaninny a bit early, when he was away. As soon as he come back and seen it, he told her to stamp on it, which she did, but it was too late. Everybody knew that a black had beaten him to it. The kid was black as night. Ever since then, he won’t allow any of his studs to drop one here, they’ve got to get out.’

‘By Yimmy,’ said Carl. ‘I wish the old man turn her over to me. Them breasts, them legs, ooh she’s goot. She’s more like girls back home, plenty padding. These gins like rakes—all bones.’

‘Well, for mine,’ said Dick, ‘anybody can have the whites, or the half-castes either for that matter. The blacks’ll do me. With these white sheilas you never know where you are. You might muck around all night, just about blowin’ a gasket, and then end up gettin’ scrubbed. With a gin you can bowl her over any time you want, any way you like.

‘Some o’ these creamy bitches,’ continued Dick, ‘put on airs as if they was white.’

Chuckles and guffaws from the rest.

‘It’s right. When I was at Inkaba twelve months ago I struck one. She lobbed there from a mission. Well, all the rest of them was pretty well fixed at the time and I was short, so I lumbered her off to the hut. I just go to roll her over on the bed, and, Christ, she went off like a cracker. Put on an act like Greta Garbo.’

Amid loud guffaws, ‘What’d you do?’

‘I was so dumbfounded I just gaped. She was only a bit of a kid, too, you know. “Who the hell do you think you are?” I says. “Ginger Rogers?” Well, I mucked round with her for a while, then I go to roll her over again, and she makes a break for the door. I grab her by the scruff of the neck and throw her over the bed. “There,” I says, “if you don’t like lying on your back, try lying on your belly for a while,” and I into her with a bit of bamboo I had handy. She had a nice fat, mission-fed arse too, and did I corrugate it! By the time I finished, she was glad to roll over.’

‘Well,’ chuckled Sam, ‘what’s wrong with that? You reckoned half-castes was no good.’

‘Yeah, she was all right—for once. But every time she seen me after that she off like a rock wallaby. I like a nice peaceful gin that I can liven up with a shot of metho or a lacing occasionally. What d’you say, Peter

‘Yes, the blacks’ll do me. I’m a believer in the metho. If they won’t move with a charge of metho in ’em, they’re dead.’

‘What about this game,’ asked Carl. ‘We gonna play?’

‘Oh, I suppose we might as well have a game. You run ’em, Carl,’ said Peter.

‘How come you leave Blackwood, Dick?’ asked Sam. ‘Didn’t you say the other day that he paid a quid a week better than here? Oh, all right, I’ll say six hearts.’

‘Yes, I did—seven diamonds—nearly everything’s better there. Accommodation’s better, food’s better, wages is better. No, no more, I pass. There’s just one thing wrong with it, the blacks. Old White says, “They must be treated like human beings.” How’s that? They get the same food as the whites, and he gives ’em five bob a week each—in cash. Well, I ask you, how d’you think they’d be? Cheeky! Jesus, they talk back to you. One of ’em give me some lip, a bit of a kid about eighteen. I had a bridle in my hand at the time, so I just swung it bit-end first and downed him like a tack. The old man and me just ran at one another. I still don’t know whether I snatched it or got sacked. No, I’ll say nothing this time. But I was glad to get away from there. It’s time to get out when the blacks are petted like that.’

‘I’ll say,’ grunted Sam. ‘What’s the feed like over that way? Did you say it was as dry as here?’

‘Well—nearly the same. I believe it’s pretty well the same all over the Territory. There not only won’t be any cattle goin’ out this year, but there won’t be any left for next year if it keeps on like it has been. Oh, all right, I’ll attend to the game. Me’n Sam don’t need to concentrate much to beat youse two.’

The novel No Sunlight Singing is Copyright © Joe Walker 1960.

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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