No Sunlight Singing

Book One, Chapter 6

Next morning the party got off to an early start. It was more like the fading of darkness than the flush of daylight when they crossed the river bed, now dry as a bone. As they climbed the slope on the other side and turned over the rim of the bank, the younger ones could not resist a longing glance behind.

This departure was different from others they had made. It had the flavour of leaving after a holiday, parting from friends after having a happy time. But to counteract any feeling of sadness they had physical well-being after rest and food, and the urge to press on to a definite goal, now seeming to be well within reach.

Leaving the river bank and striking out a little east of north, the country changed immediately to the dry parched earth they knew so well. The only difference now was that it was not so flat as the great plain. Ridges and hollows occurred fairly frequently and the scrub was bigger. The bushes were strong and healthy looking, though grey and dry, and medium-sized trees were plentiful. Though these things made for variety and relief to the eyes, travelling was made more difficult and progress slower.

By late afternoon all remnants of holiday spirit had worn off, and it was back to the solid plugging over harsh and inhospitable ground under the burning ordeal of a relentless sun. At last, just as the sun was dipping into the trees, they reached the first objective, a deep and rocky creek bed. Bent trees and debris scattered high on the banks bore witness to the mass of water that poured down the narrow chasm at times.

Johnny led the way along the bed to where the walls rose so steeply as to be almost cliffs, enclosing a deep and narrow hole. Instead of water the bottom was covered with a seamed and cracked coating of dry mud. In the middle were the skin and bones of a bullock which had struggled into the mud in search of water, but had been unequal to the task of getting out.

Johnny and Paddy were not dismayed by the fact that there was no water in sight. They had been expecting this, although the water-hole had earned a reputation for permanency. What did worry them a little was the dryness of the bottom. They selected two stakes from among the driftwood, sharpened their points with the butcher’s knife, and started to dig. They dug in separate places, well apart but in the deepest portion of the hole. It did not take them long to get through the mud, which was only the last flood’s load of silt, then they were into the true sandy bottom, where they hoped to find water. The sand flew out in continuous showers. Eighteen inches, and still it was dry. Another foot and they were on solid bottom, and the sand was moist, but only moist. Paddy looked into Johnny’s hole and Johnny looked into Paddy’s, then they solemnly shook their heads and turned away.

Where there should have been a seepage of water, so that sheets of bark would be necessary around the hole to keep the sand from caving in, now there was only a slight creeping of moisture from firm walls of damp sand. Betty had been squatting by a fire with a billy of water waiting for instructions whether to boil up some of the tough kangaroo meat.

‘No more water,’ Johnny said. ‘One little drink tonight.’

The situation had become grim. Although they had carried a good supply of water from the river, it was small now because they had used it freely, counting on getting some in this creek which had never been dried out in the memory of man.

‘It will take us more than a day to the spring,’ said Polly. ‘Nearly two,’ said Johnny. ‘Bad track.’

‘I wonder if anyone is working the mine where I used to live. That is several miles this side of the spring.’

‘Not much good, anyway,’ grunted Betty. ‘Not get much from white man.’

Midday the next day but one found them, with their tongues sticking to the roofs of their mouths, picking their way through loose boulders on the side of a rocky hill. The heat of the sun beating back from the bare rocks made it like a furnace. They turned the shoulder of a rocky outcrop, and there was a strange sight—car tracks.

Took,’ cried Polly, somebody is at the mine. Let us go in. It is only about half a mile.’

The others looked at one another and then turned on to the track without wasting words, but obviously without wasting any hope either. The track wound a tortuous way through rocks, gradually working upwards. Suddenly it levelled off and they were in a narrow break in the chain of hills.

Ahead of them they could see a crude bush humpy nestling into the side of the hill. As they came closer, they could see a hole in the side of the hill. From this hole two lengths of narrow iron rail led to a hollow in the ground where there were signs of fresh dirt having been tipped on top of dirt which looked as if it had lain there for years.

As Harry Holman and Reg Wilson came out of the tunnel and blinked in the blazing sunlight the warm breeze felt cool and refreshing to their steaming skins. Wearing only boots and tattered, dirty shorts, their nuggety, hard-muscled bodies were covered with dirt, save where rivulets of sweat had cut channels through the grime.

Harry stirred the ashes of the camp-fire with his boot, and dropped some dried pandanus leaves and a handful of twigs on the coals beneath. ‘She’s getting hot in the end o’ that drive now,’ he said.

Reg straightened up with the billy in his hand, then bent again to hang it over the fire. ‘Are you tellin’ me?’ he asked with a note of sarcasm. ‘A man won’t be able to throw a shadder soon.’ He sat down on a log and stared glumly into the fire, while Harry threw down a bag on the stony ground and stretched out full length on it.

The tunnel they had just left was driven into the steep north side of a cleft in the low range of barren stony hills that stretched away to the north and south of them. A crude but roomy hut with iron roof, and bark and hessian sides, snuggled up against the side of the hill. Alongside it stood a little old motor-truck of ancient vintage and doubtful parentage. The main parts were there; it had an engine and four wheels. It even had most of the bonnet and two front mudguards, but, no cabin or shelter of any kind over the driving-seat. Two forty-four-gallon petrol-drums on the flat-topped body were obviously water-tanks, judging from the bags covering them and the baling tin alongside them.

‘Seems to me we’re wastin’ our time,’ said Reg. ‘I think Jack Smith knew it was cut out, that’s why he left.’

‘But I tell you he didn’t,’ replied Harry. ‘He went ’cause he got a telegram saying his old man was dying. He told me the last time I seen him, an’ that wasn’t long before he left, that he was on to a new leader that was better than the old one. It’s only a matter of us finding it. Anyway, you can see for yourself that there’s plenty of ore left in the old stope, so you can’t say he’d cut it out.’

Reg leaned forward and poked the fire. ‘Yeah, well, it still might pay us better to get out what’s there instead of keeping lookin’ for something that probably isn’t there.’

Harry propped himself up on an elbow. ‘It’s no use going over all that again. You know how far we’d have to cart the ore to get it crushed. It was different for him. When the Golden Gate was going he only had to cart it a few miles to their battery. Anyway, we’ve decided to give it a go to the end of this week and then we’ve got to go to town in any case. What’s left o’ the kangaroo and the bit o’ tinned stuff’ll just keep us going till then.’

He dropped back and stared up into the leaves above him. ‘If we haven’t got on to anything good by then I think I’ll go on up to Darwin and get a job for a few months to get a few quid. According to that bloke we saw a few weeks ago there’s a lot o’ work about with this defence programme. If a man works for a few months and keeps off the grog, he’ll have enough to get a supply o’ tucker and sit down here a while and give it a good go. Might get a couple o’ blacks after the drought breaks.’

‘I don’t think I’ll be comin’ back if there’s any work in Darwin,’ said Reg with a twisted grin. ‘It seems like a blue duck to me. What I can’t get over, if it’s so good, why hasn’t Smithy come back to it?’

‘You don’t know Smithy like I do. He never goes back to anything. It’s a wonder he went back to his old man. We don’t know; there might’ve been some money in it. Nobody knew anything about him ’cept that he came from Melbourne, didn’t even know his name. I’ll bet it’s not Smith.’

Reg scooped up a few twigs and bits of bark and spread them around the billy. ‘Smithy had a gin here, didn’t he, when he was workin’ here?’

Harry’s eyes glistened and his voice had a wistful tone. ‘He had a creamy,’ he said, ‘a slasher too by all accounts. But I never saw her. I never come down here. I’d a show on the Finniss at the time, and only used to meet him in town occasionally. ’Course, he never took her to town, but by the way he talked she was a bit of all right, not too old, about fifteen or so. This place’d do me, too, if there was a few gins about. I could go for Dog-Face Maggie right now.

‘Well, you can have both the place and the gins, Harry. Darwin’ll do me if there’s any jobs there.’ Reg got the tea tin and threw a handful of tea in the billy. ‘What’re we goin’ to do, have a bit o’ tucker?’ he asked. ‘Now the billy’s boiled it’d be just as easy to have a bite and get it over with.’

‘O.K. with me,’ said Harry, climbing to his feet. ‘Open a tin o’ meat, I s’pose! Yes, that’d be best, an’ I’ll put the kangaroo on to boil for tea.’ He turned and grinned at Reg. ‘How’d you like to be downin’ a bottle o’ beer an’ then sittin’ down to a feed in the Chinaman’s?’

‘Yeah,’ answered Reg, smacking his lips. ‘A bowl o’ long soup at Fong Kee’s, then fish an’ eggs. Oh, skip it! You know I can’t for the life o’ me see what you blokes get out o’ this kind o’ life.’ He followed Harry up to the hut and set the billy down on a table under a bough shed.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Harry, throwing down the tin-opener and tipping the meat out on to a tin plate. ‘I like the town, too. But even if you can earn money you’ve still got to keep it. I can’t when I’m near a pub. Oh, I can settle down for a while if I really want something; like I was saying—a few months to get a few quid to go out prospecting again—but not to get a roll.’

It was comparatively cool in the bough shed that was built like an arch over the entrance to the hut. Years-old twigs, bare of leaves, hung down here and there just clearing the men’s heads, but fresh branches had been thrown on top to fill the gaps. The sun’s rays were cheated by the thick canopy of leaves, but any errant breeze could find its way through.

At a packing-case table Harry and Reg sat down on up-ended boxes to the meal of half-warm, greasy meat and a lump of dry damper. They chewed steadily and in silence for a while, washing down the unappetizing food with gulps of strong black tea. Then, between bites, Harry went on: ‘When me an’ Smithy was in the Tennants we was doin’ all right. We had a good show. But we never got a cracker out of it. It all went in grog.’ He ruminated and grinned to himself. Jeez, she was a wild town, that.’ His grin spread. ‘We ended up by selling the show in the pub one day for a tenner an’ this old bus. I believe the bloke that bought it got a thousand out of it.’

‘Reach us the tin o’ cocky’s joy.’ Reg took the tin of syrup and spread some on the last bit of damper. ‘Yes, but what gets me,’ he mumbled through a mouthful, ‘this prospectin’s just gamblin’ —but it’s doin’ it the hard way. If you’re lucky you might crack it, but if you’re not you can live on Johnny-cake an’ kangaroo all your life an’ still be no forrader. I like gamblin’, but I like to do it the easy way. If you’re lucky you can get all you need off the Chinamen in Cavenagh Street. A nice game of fan-tan or pi-ku’s the shot. You only want a bit.’

Harry wiped his hand across his mouth, then rubbed his hands on his shorts and rolled a cigarette. ‘All right, Reg, you stop in Cavenagh Street and I’ll come back here. We’ll both wind up the same in the long run, I s’pose.’

He lit his smoke and stretched his legs out. ‘You know, I been thinking, we been doing the wrong thing slaving away in there, cross-cutting here and driving there. Smithy was on to gold. So it’s only a matter of using the old nut and working out how he camouflaged it when he left. Now when I get back here I’ll get some blacks, must have a gin at least. Then I can settle down peaceful and work things out ’stead o’ rushing in bullheaded. You know the beauty o’ this show, if you could get on to gold, it’s so easy to work. No shaft sinking and straining your guts pulling it to the surface. just drive in an’ pull it out the tunnel.’

Reg drained the last of the tea into his pannikin. ‘Talking about blacks, it’d be a black’s life here all right. Might as well be out on the Nullarbor.’

Harry jumped to his feet and went to the door of the shed. ‘Well, I’ll be damned, talk of the devil, look what’s here.’

Twenty yards or so from the camp, the party halted. Paddy picked up the water-tin and walked up close to Harry and Reg. He hesitated, awaiting an invitation to speak.

‘Wan’em water, eh?’ said Harry. ‘Cert’nly look as if you could do with some. How’s that tin near you, Reg, any in it? Nothing much, eh? S’pose I better get some.’

He took the tin over to the old truck, ladled out a couple of gallons and brought it back. Then he tipped it into Paddy’s tin. ‘Here, this should soak your hides a bit.’

As Paddy dished out the water, Harry studied them and remarked to Reg: ‘They cert’nly needed that, must’ve had a long dry stage. Wonder what’n hell they’re doing walkabout at a time like this for? Looks as if we’re going to get rid o’ that kangaroo without any trouble.’

‘The kangaroo?’ said Reg. ‘But we need that to keep us goin’ to the end of the week.’

‘Oh, well, what’s the difference, now or the end of the week? You don’t care how soon you leave, an’ I’m easy. Anyway, you can’t leave folks starve even if they are blacks. Hi, c’m here.’

At his call the party shuffled up a bit closer, eyeing the white man warily. Mary clung to her mother and sheltered behind her. Polly glanced around curiously, recognizing familiar objects.

‘Why you fella bin walkabout this fella time? No more water, no more feed, nothing?’ asked Harry.

‘We fella bin work longs Melville Downs,’ said Paddy. ‘No more water, no more feed, white fella boss say, “Go!” ’

‘Melville Downs, that’s a fair walk these times. How’s their rotten form?’ Harry said to Reg. ‘These big cattle stations keep the blacks when times are good and chase ’em when there’s a drought on. Prob’ly done the same with the whites. God, they’re tough—the biggest menace in the Territory.’ He turned to Paddy again. ‘You bin got’m tucker?’

Paddy shook his head and spread his hands out. ‘No more catch’m.’

Harry started to get up. ‘Gib you bit.’

Reg said: ‘I’ll get it. It’s a pleasure to see it go!’

He went over to a hessian meat-safe hanging at the back of the bough shed and brought back half a skinny kangaroo. He handed it to Betty, who held out eager hands. ‘Here you are. I’ll settle for steak and eggs.’

‘Which way you bin walkabout,’ asked Harry, ‘that-a-way?’ He pointed his chin to the north.

‘That-a-way,’ agreed Paddy. ‘Longa mishun.’

‘Might be something there,’ Harry went on. ‘You go tree-four days come stashun, you bin ask tucker. Him good fella boss. Him gib tucker.’

He turned to Reg. ‘That’s old Watson. Don’t know him, do you? A good bloke. I worked for him once, building some huts. He won’t see anybody go short, white or black.’

Polly plucked up courage to ask, ‘Do you know Jack Smith, mister?’

Harry jumped. ‘I know Jack Smith. Who’re you, with a voice like that?’

‘I am Jack Smith’s wife. I used to live here with him.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned. But Smithy’s wife? That’s stretching it a bit. Don’t tell me he married you—in a church?’

‘No church, but my father said we were married and Jack agreed.’

‘Mm, like that. Then whose is the little girl, Smithy’s?’

‘Yes, she is Jack Smith’s daughter. But tell me where he is. How do you come to have his mine?’

‘Bonny little kid, too.’ Harry bent down and snapped his fingers. ‘Come on, come talk to me. No? Oh, well, you might be a good judge.’

He stood up and turned back to Polly. ‘Where is Jack Smith? Well, he might be anywhere. I wish I knew. As far as this place goes, it’s mine unless he comes back. I used to be his partner. But listen.’ His voice became eager. ‘You should know where he found gold. Just before he left he got on to some good stuff, but I can’t find it. You should know about it. Didn’t he tell you when he was leaving!’

Polly shook her head. ‘He told me nothing about it. He said there was gold there, but it was no use to me because the first white man who came along would take the mine off me, and so it was better to leave it. He went in such a hurry.’

Harry grimaced. ‘Yeah, he went in a hurry all right. I can see why he wouldn’t tell you, you couldn’t have held it. Oh, well, go and have some tucker, I’ll see you later. Over there, under the trees, you can camp. Sing out to me if you want more water.’

As the people walked away, he turned and sat down. ‘You can see now, Reg, what a good thing Smithy was on. She’s getting on now, must be over twenty, and she’s all blown out, and gaunt from walking, but she’s still a good line. How would she be when Smithy first had her, about fifteen? Oh boy! Anyway, she’ll still do me. I’ll be at her tonight.’

‘You’re a beauty!’ Reg gasped. ‘A few minutes ago you were talkin’ about how knocked up they were, now you’re goin’ to bowl her over.’

‘Oh, that’s nothing to these,’ said Harry airily. ‘Give ’em a drink and a feed and a bit of a rest and they’re as good as new.’ ‘Well, what about the kitty?’

Harry’s rugged face twisted in a grin. ‘You don’t think I’d let that stop me, do you? S’matter of fact I think I’ll get her up here this afternoon. Even if she don’t know where Smithy got gold she might know whereabouts he was working the last part o’ the time. It’d make a big difference if we even knew whether he was working on top o’ the hill or inside the mine. I might be able to kid ’em to come back here when the drought breaks.’

Harry gave a hitch to his shorts and tightened the belt as he came out of the hut and walked over to the trees. In the shade he stretched and patted his flat stomach where the muscles showed ridged and hard. ‘Jeez, I needed that,’ he said. Polly followed him out of the hut and stood hesitating by the bough shed. Harry beckoned to her. ‘Come over here an’ sit in the shade and cool off a bit.’ He flopped on the ground and patted a spot near him. ‘Here y’are, park the body.’ Polly obediently walked over and sat down cross-legged.

Harry turned where he lolled, half-lying on the ground. His hand reached out and fondled the soft warmth of the inside of Polly’s thigh.

‘Christ, just imagine that bastard Smithy runnin’ away from you—an’ a gold mine—an’ not givin’ me the drum.’

His work-calloused hand was rough as a rasp and Polly winced and shifted ground. ‘Are you coming back here?’ she asked.

‘My oath,’ Harry said vehemently. ‘Now you’ve shown me where Smithy was workin’ I’ll be back here all right. Six months, yeah, six months’ll do. I can get enough in six months to get some tucker an’ gear. Then I’ll be back. What about you? You folks comin’ back this way?’ He looked up into her face and his voice sounded earnest. ‘You know, you’d allus be right with me. This show’ll come good an’ I’ll need some help.’

Polly shook her head slowly. ‘I don’t think we’ll be coming back here. But,’ she added softly, ‘I like you, and if we were back this way I’d look for you.’

She squeezed her legs together to hold his hand still. ‘I want my little girl to learn to be like the whites. That’s why we’re going up to the mission. That’s the best thing to do, isn’t it?’ She leaned forward eagerly.

Harry shook his head thoughtfully. ‘It won’t do no harm, I s’pose. She’ll get a bit o’ education there. But the trouble is when it’s finished they’ll just send her out to a station an’ she’ll be no better off.’ He slapped vigorously at his leg and scratched and wriggled. ‘Bloody ants, bastards. Jeez, they bite!’ He scrambled over Polly’s legs and sprawled out again.

‘But there must be some way for coloured people to improve themselves.’ Polly’s voice was anxious. ‘I’ve heard there are a lot in Darwin who live like whites.’

‘Yeh, but that’s Darwin.’ Harry waved his hand. ‘That’s not on the stations. They’s a good few in Darwin is declared not abos accordin’ to the act. They do all right. I’ve worked with ’em. They get full wages ’n everything. But you got to get away from Native Affairs. Long as you’re under them you’re an abo.’

Polly’s face was twisted with anxiety and her fingers plucked nervously at the hairs on Harry’s chest. ‘But if a girl was educated like a white girl, couldn’t she get to live like one?’

Harry waved vaguely. ‘Don’t think it’d make any difference. Don’t think the’s any way a girl can get declared not an abo ’cept by marrying somebody. You see,’ he went on slowly as he began to roll a cigarette, ‘the’s not that many gets out. Just an odd one now an’ again. Say an abo gets a job for hisself at award wages, on a shit cart, say. He carries on spite o’ Native Affairs, but he’s still under ’em. If he wants to start a bank account, say—he can’t do it on’y under Native Affairs’ name.’

He turned over on his back and blew a stream of smoke at the flies hovering round his head. ‘Well, this might go on for years. Then all on a sudden, nobody knows why nor when, somebody gets a brainstorm, an’ there’s a notice in the Gazette saying so-and-so’s no longer an abo. Then he’s right, ’cept he’s s’posed to carry a paper to say so if some phizgig wants to see it. But,’ he added, shaking his head, ‘I don’t know the’s any way a lubra can do anythin’ like that.’ He dropped his cigarette-butt on a trail of ants and grinned at the scurrying and rushing and scouting around it caused. Then he turned over on his side to face Polly. One hand felt Polly’s legs and the other reached up to her shoulders to pull her down.

‘Not yet.’ Polly twisted away. ‘Tell me first how my girl can get to be like a white.’

‘I tole you,’ Harry protested. ‘Marry a white man. She might do all right if she married a half-caste who was declared not an abo, but the surest way is marry a white man.’

‘But then,’ Polly pressed further, ‘is there no more trouble? Can coloured people live with the whites?’

‘Pooh, nobody cares in Darwin,’ Harry declared. ‘The’s black, white, brown, and brindle, an’ it don’t matter long as they’re not abos. See, once they’re not under Native Affairs they’re as good as th’ other coloured folks—the Chinese, Malays, T-Islanders, Yankee niggers, Japs, or any of ’em. ’Course, some o’ the shitheads might look down their noses, but they do that at any worker, anyway.

‘See,’ he went on to explain, ‘if a half-caste girl marries a white, she’s set, she’s free o’ Native Affairs. Don’t matter who it is—could be Windmill Scotty or Bob the Dog. She don’t even have to live with him. Take Julie now, she married Lofty Barmer and now she’s just like a white woman—sleeps with anybody, an’ drinks in the pubs—anything at all.’

He swarmed over her, pressing her to the ground just as Reg sang out, ‘Give’s a hand here, Harry.’

‘Half a mo’, Reg. Be right with you.’

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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