No Sunlight Singing

Book One, Chapter 4

Came the day when Maggie’s prophecy was fulfilled and another thin ragged file headed west from Melville Downs. Already well clear of the tree-tops, a merciless sun blazed venomously from a sullen sky. The half-dead leaves hung listless and motionless, save where suddenly a willy-willy curved from the plain into a bunch of trees, whipping them into brief but frantic motion. Behind the slow-moving little column the dust swirled languidly and settled back gently, as if each grain were seeking to return to the very spot it had just left.

At the head of the file Johnny thrust forward eagerly, unable to restrain himself, in spite of repeated efforts, to the pace of the others. His spears, his face, even his body seemed to quiver and point like a game dog.

Not having any weapons, Paddy came next, travelling light. Betty trudged along carrying most of their gear in spite of Polly’s protests. The load didn’t amount to much anyway, the heaviest item being an old tin that held a couple of gallons of water. Once out of sight of the homestead, Paddy settled all arguments by taking the water-tin himself.

Mary, coming last with her mother, was scolded by Polly for doing a hop and skip and darting away from the track to investigate something or other. ‘Come back here and walk as we do. We have far to go and you have no strength to waste. Watch Betty and copy her steps.’ Indeed, twenty miles to water, with the sun well up, was a long step for a first day.

All trudged ahead strongly. The past few days had worked wonders for them. The thought of leaving Melville Downs had given each of them a new interest in life. In addition, they had been eating well and exercising. Johnny had found a bullock that had been dead only a short time, and although it had little on it but skin and bone there had been enough to keep them chewing. A hunk of what most resembled flesh had been boiled up, and Johnny had taken it out and buried it near the first water along with their chief treasures, the billy-can, water-bag, and butcher’s knife.

Johnny kept them going well until midday. Then they squatted in the meagre shade of a patch of grey-looking mulga, had a drink of water, and chewed the last ragged remnants of meat. Before the sun was far past the vertical, they were off again. Though it meant walking through some of the worst of the heat they had to camp down early, for it was necessary to have a long sleep before they set out—hours before daylight—on a stage that might take three days to water. As they trooped up to a clump of bushes near a tank the sun was just setting. Polly and Mary were beginning to wilt, but if the others felt any ill-effects they did not show it.

There was a big tank, a row of troughs, and a little hut. It was a government bore on the stock route. During the droving season a man would be there to keep the water flowing, but now it had been long deserted. However, there was still water in the tank.

Johnny produced his treasures, but the hunk of meat was stinking and almost green. Betty put it on to boil in the old tin. Mixing up the parcel of weevily flour with a little water she made johnny-cakes which she dropped into the ashes to cook. The meat came out little, if any, less rank than it went in. ‘What you think, Betty?’ asked Johnny. ‘Polly and Mary can eat this? Polly not too good,’ patting his stomach, ‘and Mary too much white. White people weak stomachs.’

‘I dunno,’ said Betty, ‘we have tin of meat,’ pointing to a small tin of bully beef. ‘What you think, Polly?’

‘No,’ said Polly, ‘we can’t open the tin. It has to do us for three days. I will eat some meat. I am strong. I don’t know about Mary but she has eaten nearly everything with Lizzie. She had better try it. She can’t walk three days on a bit of johnny-cake.’

Johnny cut off a lump from the better end and passed it across. Polly tried a bit and then gave some to Mary. ‘Here, try this.’

‘I can eat that, Mummy,’ piped up Mary. ‘With Lizzie I have often eaten worse than that. Lizzie used to say I couldn’t eat something because I was white and weak, but I did eat it just to show her.’

So, as darkness began to fall, the little party squatted down and devoured this rotten, tainted meat.

In the cool of the early hours, by the light of the waning moon, dim figures could be seen rising like wraiths from among the bushes. A toss backward of the head and a shake of the hips completed the toilet. Each had a long drink, the water-tins and bag were filled, and everything was ready.

Without a word, Johnny, Paddy, and Betty picked up the gear, and silently five bare-footed figures padded out on to the plain lying stark and silvery in the moonlight.

Silently and steadily they moved forward while the light faded as the moon dipped and sank, so that for a time it was difficult to avoid the spiny stumps of spinifex that cropped up here and there. Soon, to the right of them, a faint glimmer appeared on the horizon. This gradually spread until the sky was filled with light and the earth was revealed again in all its tragic barren monotony; the plain stretching forward, not bare and level as far as the eye can reach, as is the great plain of Queensland, but slightly rolling and for the most part studded with grey spears of spinifex and drooping, almost lifeless scrub, so stunted as to be hardly worthy of the name.

Now the cool night breeze died and the miserable plant life shrank into immobility as if cowering and tensing itself for the first impact of the sun’s renewed assault. The travellers seemed to quicken their steps under a futile impulse to flee from this monster coming up on their flank. There he came, shining red through the haze, threatening to consume all life.

Soon after sun-up, Johnny waved them to the ground. ‘Little bit spell then we do another two-three hours.’

As they squatted behind a tiny bush Mary said, ‘Mummy, I want a drink.’ Polly looked at Johnny.

‘Give her a mouthful, you have one,’ he said. ‘Out of the water-bag. Must use it first, it wastes.’

A few minutes later he rose to his feet and, as the others followed his example, strode forward once more. Now the sun was up and overtaking them, moving across their track as if to bar their advance. The heat and hours of walking had taken the spring from their legs but still they went steadily on.

Well before midday they found a couple of slightly larger bushes and dropped down to rest. For some time Polly had been finding her heavy body a tremendous load, and Mary had been clinging more and more to her skirt. Johnny had not looked back and Polly had been wondering how long she could resist the urge to call out. Apparently Johnny knew by instinct, for he called a halt just as she had finally decided she could not carry on.

A drink of water and a nibble of Johnny-cake, and they all stretched out in the little more than imaginary shade to try to doze through the hours of fiercest heat, and forget aching limbs and parched throats.

In the afternoon, as soon as the sun had dipped appreciably towards the west, the march was continued. At first it was a relief to be moving after the hours of restless inaction, the twisting and wriggling to try to keep a few half-dried leaves between them and the sun, with craving stomachs and kiln-dry lips only tormented by occasional sips of precious water. But, mercifully, the sun was not now shining directly in their faces, and as time went on it slipped further and further behind them. For Polly and Mary, at least, the morning’s fatigue soon reasserted itself, and it became a matter of the will to force first one leg forward, then the other.

An hour or so later, Polly and Mary were dropping back in spite of all their efforts. Mary, who had whimpered a little occasionally, earlier in the day, now had a set look on her face that made her look years older. She struggled on manfully but she couldn’t help dragging her feet a little and stumbling occasionally. Betty turned back to them. ‘Don’t think it be long now. I feel ready to drop, but we can’t stop, can we? Hang on to me, little one, I give you a pull.’ The two found new strength. Betty’s giving Mary a tow was a real help to both her and Polly.

Soon after sundown they suddenly came upon a hollow, perhaps half an acre in extent, where the little trees and bushes scattered about had a green look in comparison with all the rest. Obviously, water would lie here after heavy rains. Johnny and Paddy put down their loads under a tree and waited for the others. They looked searchingly at Polly and Mary but all they said was, ‘Wait here, we have a look.’

Betty lit a fire and all three stretched out. Just as dusk was turning to full darkness the men returned. Each had a handful of grubs as a result of the night’s hunting. These were shared out, the biggest shares going to Polly and Mary, and devoured eagerly. Then the tin of bully-beef was opened and a mouthful or two of this with a bit of Johnny-cake completed the feed.

‘You bin this way before, Paddy,’ said Johnny. ‘How far you reckon?’

‘Long time since,’ replied Paddy, ‘but I think mebbeso halfway to the bore.’

‘Ooh,’ said Polly, ‘then we get there tomorrow.’

‘No fear,’ answered Paddy, ‘you no walk as far tomorrow as today. Besides, some ground rougher. Might be could get there midday next day. What you say, Johnny?’

‘Might be,’ agreed Johnny. ‘Polly and Mary doing good, but tough tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow we pass Old Man Water-hole,’ said Paddy. ‘Few miles from our track. I go over there, might be get something. No water now, but could be something.’

‘Better I go,’ said Johnny.

‘Why, you think I no can see?’ demanded Paddy.

‘Oh, you see orright, but can you smell where nobody can see? You always bin chase cows when I bin hunt. No can hunt when riding horses.’

Paddy looked disgruntled but accepted defeat.

The first stage of the next day’s travelling was much like the previous one, except that the accumulated effects of two days’ walking with shortage of food and water made themselves felt, and walking was more of an effort. Mary, being young, had picked up marvellously and was strong and lively, but because of her youth her stomach was most vociferous. She was given the last piece of leathery johnny-cake to chew as she walked, but it was a poor substitute for food. Polly was stiff and sore and had to drive herself all the way. Chiefly on her account, the midday stop was made earlier than on the previous day, with a much shorter distance covered.

After a short rest, Johnny said, ‘I go now, see you tonight.’

Paddy gave him instructions as to how to find the water-hole.

Then, as he was leaving: ‘What about water? You take some?’

‘No, I no need, I have a drink.’ He took a mouthful of water and away he went. With no appearance of hurrying he disappeared from view as if by magic.

Late in the afternoon the predictions of tough going were proven correct. Patches of loose stones and strips of stony outcropping had to be crossed. Not great hazards in themselves but they immeasurably increased the labour for tired legs. Where, before, feet could be half dragged, just scuffling over the ground, now they had to be lifted and placed carefully to avoid bruising.

After a couple of miles of this, Mary was about done. Though not whimpering, she gave an involuntary sob at intervals as she staggered on. Paddy stopped, gave what he was carrying to Betty and hoisted Mary up on his back. ‘Not much more stone,’ he said. ‘Must get across it tonight.’

The next hour was a nightmare of effort, but just as the sun was dipping to the horizon they crossed a stony ridge and found themselves on an open plain. Paddy pointed to a clump of trees about half a mile away. ‘There we stop.’ With a final drive they made the trees and dropped to the ground.

After a while Betty got up and started to light a fire. ‘Better be ready cook something when Johnny come.’

‘Not much chance he will bring anything,’ said Polly.

‘He will. He better, we got nothing, no tucker, nothing much water, one drink tonight, one tomorrow tha’s all.’ She had no sooner spoken than there was Johnny, a big grin on his face and two big frogs and a medium-sized snake in his hands. ‘How you get them?’ was the chorus.

‘Bin dig ’em out,’ he replied. ‘These two,’ indicating the frogs, ‘bin full water. Me squeeze ’em, have good drink.’

Betty grabbed them and dumped them in the fire. They had hardly started to sizzle before they were out again and chopped up with Johnny’s big knife. One piece he put aside for Mary in the morning.

After the meal they discussed the next day’s walk. From what Paddy remembered, it seemed likely that it was now about fifteen miles to the bore. Johnny wanted to go ahead, get water, and bring it back to meet them. The others dissuaded him. They had been told that the man in charge of the bore was ‘troppo’ and crooked on blacks and just as likely to shoot them as not. They pointed out that a single black man prowling around the bore would occasion more suspicion than a party, and so there was less chance of trouble if they all went together.

Before they started next morning the water was shared out, a little drink each. Johnny and Paddy just wet their mouths and saved a drop for Mary and Polly to drink later on, and Mary had her bit of frog to chew as she walked.

Getting off to an early start, they counted on reaching the bore at about the time they would normally take their midday spell. But they had reckoned without knowing the track. At sun-up they were congratulating themselves on having made good time when suddenly they struck some sand-hill country. After the long dry spell the sand was like flour, they sank into it up to the ankles at every step. It lasted for a mile, and by the time they were across it they had lost an hour and nearly all their strength.

Mary was in fairly good condition. Her youth gave her wonderful powers of recuperation after each day’s labour and her lightness had given her an advantage in the sand. Polly, however, suffered badly on the heavy track and the party was forced to rest a while to allow her to pick up a bit. From there on there were many stops, but only brief ones. It was no use sitting down when their bodies were crying out for water.

Up to the present, Polly and Mary had ended the day’s travel in an agonizing battle between willpower and aching, straining muscles, but now there was no battle, because there was no longer any conscious willpower, no longer any feeling in their straining muscles. All feeling was submerged in a consuming thirst. Only instinct kept them moving, instinct to follow those three wiry black figures plodding endlessly, automatically, and, apparently, tirelessly forward.

An outside observer would have noticed that all was not well even with these three. Polly followed Paddy, hanging on to the waistband of his trousers. As her weight shifted from time to time, Paddy’s feet stumbled and shifted uncertainly. Even Mary’s weight, hanging to a corner of her tattered skirt, caused Betty to waver occasionally. Johnny, the iron man, who had walked further and eaten and drunk much less than any of them, walked without a falter, his eyes, nose, and ears questing; only his mouth, swollen and cracked, and a grey pinched look around the nostrils, indicated the strain he was under. Suddenly he stood still, his head raised and body tensed; twitching nostrils indicated which of his senses was being concentrated. ‘Water,’ he croaked.

At this magic word, everyone showed signs of life and peered eagerly forward. But there was nothing to see. They were threading their way through sparse mulga scrub and vision was limited to a few yards. But they didn’t doubt Johnny and their faith gave them renewed energy.

Soon they burst through the last of the scrub and there before them lay an open plain. It was roughly circular and about half a mile in diameter. And, a magic sight, over at the far edge of the plain stood a huge galvanized iron tank and a set of troughs. Around them were scattered a few head of cattle.

After two attempts Paddy managed a word of advice. ‘We bin have to go round not to fright the cattle.’ He waved to the scrub on the eastern side of the plain. This added torture was accepted without a murmur. All knew that the white man’s cattle must not be disturbed.

Half the distance had been covered when, from the scrub in front of them, an apparition materialized. It was an incredibly tall, thin, gangling figure topped by a glaring red face, with red-rimmed bloodshot eyes, which was eclipsed by a tousled mop of long, flaming red hair. Khaki trousers, encrusted with several months’ accumulation of grease and dirt, covered the bony legs almost to the dirty bare ankles which disappeared into a broken-down pair of ‘laughing-side’ riding boots. A streaky, sweat-marked, once-khaki shirt completed the figure’s attire, its jagged frayed edges at the shoulders indicating that it had once possessed sleeves. The long skinny arms were red and freckled, save where suppurating scabs adorned numerous festering sores of the ‘barcoo rot’ type.

He waved his arms, brandishing a rifle. ‘That’s far enew. Hauld it!’

Paddy struggled and croaked : ‘Only want water. Come round this way not frighten cattle.’

‘Weel Ah ken that, an’ weel it is for you, or this [patting the rifle] wad be speakin’ to ye, no’ me. Noo bide whaur ye’re at an’ dinna frighten yon coos.’

‘But,’ stammered Paddy, ‘we need water. Long time no drink.’

‘Aboot sundown all the coos’ll shift an’ ye can get water. Till then ye’ll wait. Yer black heathen carcasses’ll no dee for water afore then, but,’ waving his arms for emphasis, ‘they will if ye come closer.’

‘But the child,’ croaked Polly pointing to Mary, ‘she must have water.’ Mary’s little face was grey, her swollen tongue protruding from swollen lips.

The monstrous head swivelled round on a neck like that of a half-roasted turkey, and the red-rimmed eyes seemed to glow redder still. ‘Yon spawn o’ the de’il, sign o’ a white man’s degr-radation, t’wad be weel if ye baith should perish ere yer evil bodies drag more men doon to the depths.’ Then he swivelled his gun across the line of them. ‘Sundown, nae sooner. An’ dinna come near ma camp, ye band o’ thieves an’ harlots, or ye’ll feed the craws.’ And he backed out of sight into the scrub.

As soon as he was out of sight, Johnny dropped his spears and took a billy-can. To Paddy he said, ‘I go to water,’ waving his arm indicating a huge circle. ‘You follow red man, give sign when he not watch water.’ Johnny glided away and Paddy moved slowly along the edge of the scrub, keeping in view of the red one, but as far away as possible, while still watching him and the water-troughs.

Polly was watching Paddy settle down on his stomach behind a miserable clump of saltbush that still paraded a few dried stalks but scarcely a leaf. Her hand loosely held Mary’s arm. Had she been looking she would have seen a change coming over the girl’s face. Mary’s face was still grey and her lips swollen over a swollen tongue. But now her red-rimmed eyes, as they stared at those water-troughs across the narrow plain, took on a wild, almost animal expression. Her nose twitched as if it were smelling water. As her neck craned forward, the bulbous lips fluttered and reached for water. Suddenly she made a weird sound, half-cry, half-moan, and started forward.

At that noise Polly turned sharply and her hand involuntarily tightened on Mary’s arm. But, before she could stop the girl, she had staggered a few steps forward herself, nearly to the edge of the scrub. Polly tried to say they must wait, that Johnny was getting water, but the only sounds she made were broken croaks, like those of a frog that is beaten with a stick.

The croaks brought Betty to her aid, and it was as well. For now Mary twisted and strove with the fearful strength of one in a fit, and the two of them found it almost impossible to hold her with gentle force. Their hearts ached at the thought of the precious reserve of her strength being wasted, and at the dreadful fear that she might even throw away the ultimate ounce.

For now Mary was beyond the mere torment of a burning thirst, she was driven by the instinct of self-preservation which no agony can touch nor danger daunt. The two women were nearly as far gone. Not the threat of the red one’s bullets would have kept them from water. Only Johnny’s command, ‘You wait . . . I go to water.’

Soon Mary’s struggles lessened. Still she was tense and twitching, and reaching ever forward.

Taking advantage of the lull, the women tried to see what Paddy and Johnny were doing, but now neither was visible. Over to the right of the water-tank, however, they could see a little galvanized iron hut nestling under a tree, and alongside it the figure of the red one standing on guard, the rifle held in the crook of his arm.

Crouching behind a bush, Paddy watched him as well as a spot beyond the water-troughs, where a deliberate movement had shown Johnny to be. Paddy’s fears were that Johnny might grow impatient if the red one stayed on, and try a dash across the several yards of open space separating him from the troughs.

Time was dragging on, the sun still shone fiercely, and was drawing the last drops of moisture from their tortured systems. Suddenly Mary made a break. She didn’t get completely free of the clutching arms of Betty and Polly, but she was out on the plain before they stopped her. All three of them were briefly clear of the trees before Mary was dragged back into shelter. This rash action proved to be their salvation. The red one, seeing some movement, without knowing what it was, started towards them, turning a blind side to the troughs.

Probably anticipating Paddy’s signal, Johnny slid over to the troughs, filled his billy, and was back in the scrub, nearly fast enough to be an optical illusion. Paddy skirmished back to the women and helped them move Mary further back into the trees. His repeated ‘Johnny come with water’ seemed to have an effect, and Mary subsided into uneasy stillness.

At last Johnny arrived, and they had to hold on grimly while he moistened the child’s lips and tongue, and then gradually eased a trickle of the warm and mineralized water down her throat. But soon all had had a little and settled down to a slow recovery as the billy was passed round.

Soon afterwards Johnny took his spears and prepared to leave again. He pointed to the north, to where the gaunt branches of a tree showed above the scrub. ‘Sundown you go round,’ waving his arm wide. ‘I meet you there.’

True to his word he was there—with a huge goanna, fat as a whale from gorging on dead cattle. What a feed they had that night! They decided to move a bit further north and camp for a day or two until they were well rested, as they could get plenty of water at night and Johnny was sure they could get plenty of tucker.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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