Book One, Chapter 3
On an evening in late August a sense of oppression lay heavily, with an almost physical and palpable weight, on the people of Melville Downs, white and black alike. The drought, now in its eighteenth month, was draining the life even out of the trees.
Many other catastrophes can be equally devastating, fire and flood for example. But they strike speedily, keep the victims busy fighting for life and property, and as speedily pass. Drought creeps up insidiously, slowly, but more relentlessly and ruthlessly efficient, while the victims can only watch and wait.
After so many weary months it was the accepted mode of thought to think in terms of—what more is dead? Everything was dying—cattle, horses, wild creatures. All grass and herbage long gone, and even spinifex, saltbush, scrub, and trees were listless, colourless, and almost lifeless. The only things that showed a profit in these hard times were the goannas and the crows. These scavengers waxed fat as the bank-books of lawyers and undertakers.
Now, in the cool of the evening, the burning desolation of sun-filled daylight hours left its impression so deeply etched on the mind that it could be felt as unmistakably as the Braille word by the fingers of a blind man.
Away from the noises of the homestead, the ears would ache seeking the relief of some sound. At night on the wide plains there is little enough noise in good seasons, but there is some. The movements of animals feeding, or seeking their prey, the cry of birds, chirping of crickets, or croaking of frogs, all to some degree contribute to the song of life. But, now, to speak of the silence of the grave was grim fact, not a figure of speech.
In the natives’ camp there was none of the relaxation that often came in the evenings of earlier days. There was no gathering together even to talk, the blacks huddled morosely in nothing bigger than family groups. Many had already stretched out, in an endeavour to lose the eternal nagging of over-nourished worries and under-nourished stomachs. From here and there came, intermittently, the whimper of hungry children in restless sleep.
Johnny and Paddy, sitting without a word, gazed fixedly at the last barely glowing embers of a tiny fire.
Polly and Betty squatted by the hut. ‘I can’t stand this much longer,’ said Polly. ‘If the Pig is going to send me walkabout, why doesn’t he do it! I am getting heavier and the track is getting drier. I should have gone long ago.’
‘Smires maybe send Paddy. You can’t go alone,’ replied Betty.
‘You know he won’t send Paddy, his best stockman. I shall have to go alone, sooner or later. The only reason I don’t go is because the police will ask before they give me tucker, “Why did you leave your last job?” If I tell them Smires said “Go” they are satisfied. I shall go to Darwin. They tell me coloured people get paid wages there, sometimes as much as ten shillings a week. I must give Mary a chance. Here there is nothing. Since I finished at the house we do not get enough to eat, and now they have chopped the ration everybody starves.’
‘It be all right,’ said Betty, ‘if Johnny keep some of what he gets extra, instead of being big and giving it to all.’
‘Oh, well, I don’t suppose you can blame him. He can’t shake off the old tribal teaching, that whatever is won must be shared with the tribe.’
‘It is not much use blaming him. I been nagging him about it for ten years, and you can see how much difference it made. In the tribes it all right, everybody does it and all sink or swim together. But here we live under the whites and our own people have learned white tricks. We not yet bad as the whites, we do help one another, but only Johnny is fool enough to share everything with everybody.’
‘I was talking to Maggie today,’ said Polly. ‘She says I needn’t worry about leaving here alone. According to her nearly the whole camp will be going very soon.’
‘What Maggie say not be far wrong. I wondered why so many been kept so long. Other dry times there been many more sent away. Boss keeps black people here when times are good and food and water is plenty. He likes to send them walkabout when waters are dry and game all gone.’
The wide verandah at the homestead, unlit save for the pale yellow glow from an oil lamp in the room beyond, gave an illusion of coolness. As Al, the head stockman, and Basil, the storekeeper, stepped up on the verandah they had eyes only for the huge figure sprawling in a cane chair. They searched Smires’ face anxiously for an inkling of what was in store, but might as well have saved themselves the trouble. In the dim light the pale eyes stared out from the sagging flesh with as much expression and feeling as the eyes of a dead fish.
A burnt-up, wizened little man with bandy legs, Al contrasted sharply with the tall, youngish, and fresh-complexioned Basil. At a wave from Smires the two sat down and waited for him to speak. Smires lit a cigarette and took a draw or two. Then: ‘I have some instructions from head office. They’re drastic but there’s no arguing against them. I got on to Darwin and the orders came from further up.
‘Two more whites are to go right away, and all the blacks, bar three families. That is, we can keep three stockmen and three or four gins.
‘What it amounts to is that they’ve decided to cut out all but the most essential expenditure, and just sit back till the drought breaks. I’ve argued with them that something can be done to keep cattle going even now, and that if we get heavy rain at the break of the drought many hands’ll be needed to save stock from drowning and bogging. They say that if the cattle are going to die it’s not worth spending money on wages to look after them. If and when the drought breaks, we can take on hands again. Little they know or care about the trouble we’re going to be in, trying to get a decent staff together again. The whites’ll have to be Peter and Sam, seeing all the new ones have already gone.’
‘I suppose,’ answered Al, ‘that Peter is one logical pick, but you can’t very well sack Sam and keep Carl on, can you? Old Sam has been here longer than half the trees near the creek. He’s sort of part of the place.’
Smires straightened up in his chair and the huge face loomed like a grotesque mask in the half-light. ‘Sam may be part of the place, but Carl’s the one we couldn’t replace. It was the greatest fluke in the world getting a mechanic and handyman like him. Sam’s getting on in years, too.’
‘That’s what I was thinking,’ said Al. ‘Sam’s getting on and he wouldn’t find it easy to get a job, where Carl would be right anywhere.’
‘Nonsense!’ snorted Smires. ‘This firm isn’t a benevolent society, and I’m paid to get results. Sam’ll be all right. Anyway, he’s going. Now, the idea with the blacks is that they’ll mainly be looking after the bores. There’s only the two where we’ll need to keep the pumps going. One thing we’ve got to do is find out how many cattle are left. There’s a brainstorm from headquarters. They want to know immediately how many head we’ve got left. The way they talk you’d think you could just run ’em through a race and tally ’em off like counting quids in a bank. Anyway, we’ve got to give an answer. The only thing I can see for it is for you to take a couple of blacks and make a rough tally. If you take Paddy and Tommy, you’ll get a good idea. There’s three horses been getting a bit of feed. They’ll carry you around as long as you take it steady.’
‘But three of us can’t round up even what’s left now to count ’em,’ protested Al.
Smires bounced in his chair. ‘God, man, don’t be crazy. I don’t want you rounding anything up. I don’t want the cattle to even see you. If they see you they’ll try to run and that means knock about a month’s condition off themselves. You can check on what comes in to water. There’s only three places to worry about, the two bores and the Big Hole. The blacks’ll give you a good idea from the tracks without ever seeing the cattle. You have to give them a figure, but near enough’s good enough. It’s got to be done this week because you won’t have Paddy next week.’
Al stared. ‘Don’t tell me you’re sending him out, one of the best hands with stock in the north, and the best horseman outside of a Wild West book?’
Smires nodded his head. ‘Yes, I’m sending him out. Well, I’ve got to send Polly and it’s not much use keeping him. One thing, he’s a bit sulky ever since that Dick gave him a belting, and if we keep him here without Polly he’s going to be worse. Of course, we could always knock it out of him, but at a time like this it’s not worth worrying about. Besides, I’ll have a leg-rope on him. He won’t stay away from the cattle country long. Once he comes near one of our stations or drovers they’ll know to send him back here. He’s too well known. You’ll see, I’ll get him back soon’s the drought breaks.’
‘Well, who’re you keeping then? Tommy?’
‘Yes, Tommy. He’s a good hand with stock and knows how to work a pump. He’s right, long as he’s off the metho. Besides, Annie’s useful to me as a standby and she’s got a couple of young ’uns there’ll soon be ready for the knife. You can keep your gin. Her boy’s pretty good at running a pump. And then we’ll keep old Jimmy’s lot. With a couple of young gins and a couple of near-grown boys, his is a handy family.’
‘When are you sending them?’ asked Basil.
‘Tomorrow. That’s what I want you for. All except Paddy and Polly and Johnny and his gin and the others I mentioned go tomorrow.’ Smires leaned forward and wagged his finger impressively at Basil, who shifted uneasily on his chair. ‘Now, you can go down with Al first thing in the morning and tell ’em to get going. Make sure they get going smartly, we don’t want ’em hanging round. But see they don’t take anything with ’em. They might have billies or water-bags or things. Some of ’em’ll probably claim they have credit owing. Just chase ’em and tell ’em they owe the firm money.’
‘What about rations?’ asked Basil. ‘Will I give them some tucker?’
‘Give ’em nothing. They’ve been sitting on their arses living on the fat of the land.’
Basil hesitated and blushed a little. ‘I was thinking that there’s still a lot of that weevily flour left and we’re not going to have many blacks left here to clean it up.’
‘Oh, well, if you want to be big-hearted you can give ’em a handful of that apiece. But the main thing is chase ’em smartly. Once you tell ’em, get ’em moving, and keep ’em moving. Now, Basil, just watch how it’s done. Your old man was one of the hardest managers the company ever had, and one of the best men with blacks—that’s how he got on so well. When he sent you here he told me to line you up as you were inclined to be soft. Since you’ve been here I’ve kept an eye on you, though I haven’t said much. From what I’ve seen, you’re more than inclined to be soft, you are soft. Remember, it don’t pay dividends—especially in this game and with this firm. Just watch Al tomorrow.’
Next morning, as the first rays of the sun struck through the leaves of the surrounding scrub, at one stroke dispelling the cool of the spring night and presaging another burning day to come, a knot of blacks clustered near Al and Basil. They muttered and gesticulated, glancing anxiously around as if seeking comfort and support.
‘What are they saying?’ asked Basil. ‘I can’t follow them at all.’
‘Oh, they’re all in strife,’ replied Al. ‘Some of ’em say they got old ’uns that can’t walk far, one has a gin that’s just dropped a piccaninny, another has one that’s just going to drop one. As if I don’t know that. That’s the only reason they’re still here. They all complain it’s too late to start now the sun’s well up!’
‘Is that right?’
‘Of course it’s right. Anybody that’s going anywhere should be halfway there by this time o’ day. But the old man’s too shrewd to warn ’em beforehand and have ’em thieving round the place.’ He turned to the natives. ‘Come on, get moving. Missa Smires say go. You no gone two-t’ree minute, Missa Smires he come. Then you go so fast you meet yourself coming back.’ To a woman murmuring anxiously and holding a tiny wrinkled speck of life: ‘You wait. Missa Smires p’raps he screw it neck, you no more have worry.’
At the dread name of Smires, the blacks cast quick glances up at the house and started for their camps to gather their meagre belongings. Soon they were assembled in family lots, five of them. Basil went round giving each lot a paper bag full of weevily flour. These were received with a mixture of doubt and eagerness, as if need were tempered with fear of a catch in it.
Al checked them over to see what they were carrying. The first one was easy; just a young fellow and a lubra, no family, but by the look of the lubra the family could start any day. Their outfit was simple, an old bag over the lubra’s shoulder and a fruit-tin billy full of water. Jeez,’ remarked Al, ‘you certainly got all your load in the one place. Right, get moving!’
Next came the family with the lubra with the tiny baby. A sturdy middle-aged man with a couple of spears was followed by a lubra with a bundle of old blankets and sundry tins; then came the woman with the baby and a couple of youngsters beside her. On the other side of them was a gangling youth of about fourteen, and behind tottered an incredibly thin and twisted old woman.
‘Well,’ said Al, ‘you’ve got the young and the old all right. I’d like to lay a shade of odds Granma doesn’t last more’n a hundred miles. Hi, you,’ to the youth. ‘What you got there? Drop that water-bag!’
The man turned back. ‘No, no!’ he protested. ‘Bag mine, long time me have ’im.’
‘Long time you have him, eh? Well, long time now you no have him. Come on, gib it here!’
‘But how we carry water?’
‘How you carry water? How do I care? Get a good gutsful before you start. What, d’you want me to drive a water-waggon along for you, or maybe an ice-cream cart? Get moving before I do me block.’
‘But isn’t that being a bit hard?’ said Basil. ‘Surely they need a water-bag?’
‘Water-bag! How do you think they got round this country before the whites came? I can just imagine what the old man’d say if he saw ’em walking away with a water-bag.’
While this was going on, old Maggie, who was with the last family, was talking to Polly. Polly was pressing her to take a lump of cooked goanna and a bit of nicki-nicki. ‘Go on, take it. We’ll be all right, but you won’t get much on that track.’
‘No, but I not need much. How long you think I last? First long stretch between water, pouf, out goes Maggie. Oh, all right, I take it. Now listen, I got news for you. Smires got job for Paddy, then you all go, Johnny and Betty too. Mebbe four-five days.’
‘Oh,’ gasped Polly. ‘You sure?’
‘Sure I sure. You be ready. Put water-bag out in scrub. Not like us, no water, no tucker, nothing. Well, I gotta go. I glad I not die in this stinking hole, anyway.’ And she turned and cocked a snook at the house as she trudged away, to follow the long thin line of figures padding softly forward into the dust and haze of this parched land.
Al turned away. ‘Well, young feller, you can go and write them off your books. In fact, I think you’d be pretty safe in writing a lot of ’em off any books. If I’m any judge, there’s a feed or two there for the crows.’
Then, raising his voice: ‘Hi! Tommy, Paddy.’ And as these two came forward: ‘You two fella get’m three fella horses longa paddock and gib’m feed chaff. ’Safternoon long mebbe ten-twelve mile you camp, then come piccaninny daylight you bin go bore. I bin come longa ute bring feed and tucker. Mind you go slow, you no more hurry horses been orright.’
Midday saw the family gathered for a feast, a hash concocted with a tin of bully-beef and flour that had been issued to Paddy for his trip. All looked elated. Drought-devastated country could not daunt them when there was a chance to leave Melville Downs. Johnny’s face was transfigured, he was hardly recognizable. Seeing this, Betty said: ‘Johnny better stay away from house. Anybody can see something wrong.’
‘Yes,’ said Polly, ‘we all must be careful. It is hard to believe Smires will let us go, but it would be terrible if he changed his mind. We must decide which way to go so that we can be ready when Paddy comes back. Are we going to Holborn Waters, the way the others went?’
Everybody looked at Johnny. ‘That way better,’ he said, pointing north-east with his chin. ‘Many tell me that track; I know it well. Not much water, but shorter, more tucker.’
‘Yes,’ said Paddy, ‘I think so. Stock route to Holborn Waters got more water but no tucker. It no further this way to Margaret and there two sure waters, might be more. If we go to Holborn Waters we still got as far to go to Margaret.’
‘We let these people know which way we go?’ asked Polly.
‘No, no,’ replied Johnny. ‘We go same way as others one day. We get water, then go that-a-way,’ again prodding to the north with his upraised chin. ‘Then two-three days to water. I go out one night hide tin, water-bag. When we come, we carry plenty water go two-three days. Orright for us, but what about Mary? She walk that far? She got plenty too much white in her.’
Polly bridled at this. ‘Mary will do it all right. Her father was tough—tough as a black man; he was a miner.’
‘Don’t worry,’ soothed Paddy. ‘We make it. There a big billy with a lid Polly got long time ago. I hid it with water-bag. You get Johnny and take hide on track.’ He whispered to Johnny, giving directions. Even when they were out in the open, well away from prying eyes and ears, this secret was too big to be spoken out loud.
‘Yes,’ said Johnny. ‘I got good butcher’s knife hid long, long time. I get him too.’
As the men settled down to plan the preparations for the trek, the women started to plan the future. ‘Where you go?’ asked Betty. ‘Me and Johnny go back to the tribe. You come with us?’
‘No,’ answered Polly. ‘We go to Darwin, I hope. They tell me that even coloured people can get enough to eat in Darwin.’
‘But you still be ordered about by white people, and how you have anything where there so many whites? Where there only one or two whites they take everything and we get nothing, so how you live when they as many as kangaroos after rain?’
‘They tell me there are men, government men like police, who give the coloured people food.’
Betty tossed her head and sneered. ‘If they like poliss you know what you get, a kick and tell you “Get back to work!” Come with us to our own people where you only starve when there nothing in the land to eat. Keep away from the whites!’
Polly threw her hands out. ‘But you can’t keep away from the whites. Wherever you go they will come and take the best. For me I do not care, I would go to your people. I too hate the whites now, although my father was a white man and a good one, and my husband was good to me until he left us. But I must think of Mary. As Johnny just said, she is nearly all white. How would she live with your people? By the time she is grown up the white men will have cattle and mines on your tribal grounds, and your people will be forced to labour for them for nothing as we do, or will be pushed into the waterless lands.
‘You say, “Keep away from the whites.” You might as well say, “Keep away from the drought,” or, “Keep away from the mosquitoes.” For the young people the only chance is to live near the whites and learn their ways. I want Mary to learn to be like them, to kick and push, not like us to be kicked and pushed.’
‘Will Paddy go to Darwin?’ asked Betty.
‘I’m not sure,’ replied Polly, ‘but I may leave him if he will not.’
‘Why you not go to Darwin that time you come here with Paddy?’
‘That was two years ago. I was young and didn’t know much. At Margaret that time Paddy was a big man, he was the best horseman. He won the races and rode the horse nobody else could ride. I did not know that here he was nothing to the white man. When I was at home my father was boss and my mother and I were guarded from other men. With my husband at the mine, other men sometimes would cast eyes at me, but I was for him alone. I did not know that a black man cannot keep his wife if a white man wants her. Do you think I would have come here if I had known of Smires? One reason I may yet go with you is so that I can choke the child when it comes.’
‘Oh, well,’ sighed Betty. ‘You may be right, but we can decide when we get to Margaret.’
‘Yes,’ said Polly, ‘we’ve got to get there yet. I think I’ll get Mary and go for a walk down the creek bed. We shall need a bit of exercise before we start on a trip like that.’
‘Don’t go too far,’ cautioned Betty. ‘When you not eating much you soon get weak.’
‘We’ll be all right. It will do us good. Anyway, we will stick to the creek bed and we might find a few grubs in the trees or something.’
She called to Mary and they set off together for the creek, the mother still moving lithely and gracefully and the girl leaner in body, and more mature in face, having aged a year or two in appearance during the past few months.
The novel No Sunlight Singing is Copyright © Joe Walker 1960.
This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.
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