THE SHADOWS of the grapevines stretched out suddenly in strange elongated shapes on the red sand. Here along the River Murray in South Australia there would yet be a full hour of hot bright light before the sun dropped down into the mallee scrub and the furnace of the western desert. Jonathan Boyle stripped the grapes off viciously. He tried to whistle a few bars of “Fellers of Australier,” but the notes wouldn’t come.
No, it was no good! The war was no good. Whether he liked it or not, he’d have to stay home. He’d been to one war too many already. If he could only have kept the damned thing from popping out; if he hadn’t sneezed!
Well, anyroad they would get the grapes picked before the weather broke. Couldn’t miss now with the end not fifteen minutes away. This farm seemed like an island in nowhere. Wouldn’t know there was a war on except for the shortage of help. He hadn’t seen a swagman in two months.
If he had, of course, Celia wouldn’t be out in this. He glanced feelingly at his wife. She was walking on her knees as she stripped the grapevines, dropping the swollen bunches into her five-gallon tin. She kept a timid eye on the big frill-necked lizard that followed along waiting for a fat grape to fall his way.
Over in the lemon trees beyond the vineyard parrots began to chatter; out in the salt bush a magpie sang his larklike song. Celia dropped one last bunch into her tin and sank back on her heels. Perspiration ran down into her eyes. “I never picked so fast in my life!” she said.
“A good job it’s done,” Jonathan said. He was at the end of the row. He pulled off the last bunch of grapes. “They’re dead ripe; another week and they’d drop. Lovely color.”
“Honey gold,” said Celia.
“Weather’s going to break, too,” said Jonathan. He got to his feet in a squatting position and straightened up slowly. “Ah, me knees are like twisted gum knots!”
Celia got to her feet, groaning and rubbing her knees. “Please heaven we can get pickers next year!” she said. “It’s too much for the two of us. They ripen so quickly, we have to pick so fast.”
“Nobody has any pickers this year. I haven’t seen a soul on the track this month past,” said Jonathan slowly. “Who’d a thought the Japs would ...” He paused. She was looking at him with the pale blue intent eyes. They used not to be so pale, but the furious back country sun had washed out some of the color. The sun of Australier wasn’t kind to women. She was as brown as—well, as he was. He was suddenly conscious of his one empty eye socket. He turned his head away.
“I’ll go get the tea,” Celia said.
AS SOON as her back was turned he got out the. case in which he kept his glass eye and took it out and inserted it in the socket. I’ll have the bloomin’ thing in when I go to tea, anyway, he thought. The jumped-up thing, if it wasn’t for that he’d be in the Army right now. Celia didn’t know he’d gone into the travelling recruiter in Mallarook the other day and tried to pass himself in. He thought he’d made it, and then standing around with his clothes off he’d sneezed, a wallopin’ awful sneeze. He’d put his hand over his eye quickly to hold it from popping out but the doctor had caught on right off.
Celia had stopped and turned back to him.
“When are you going to fix my stove? Only one burner works now. You said you’d do it Monday last and it’s only getting worse all the time!”
“I’ll fix it after tea.”
“Oh. After tea you’ll say the stove’s too hot to work on, and then you’ll forget it.”
“I’ll fix it, I’ll fix it, don’t worry. Right after tea, too. Carry on, Celia, carry on.”
Celia went on down toward the house and Jon could hear her saying, “I won’t be at the worrying; you will, some day when there’s no tea ready!” “Ah, well,” he said to himself, “I’ll get to it.” He stood for a minute looking around at the horizon. Over the mallee scrub back of his place the sun was a blaze already reddening the west. On the horizon line far to the south a few puff balls of cloud showed.
“The weather’s going to change, going to come up something quick and violent,” he said aloud. For six weeks it had been absolutely cloudless, terribly hot, like fire pouring down on the red sand. Heat and silence. No matter how used he was to it he never got used to it enough to forget it.
Seven miles to the Thompson’s, his nearest neighbor. In the utter clearness he could see the smoke from their chimney, and at night sometimes he could see their window alight. Down in front of the place the river, lined with great blue gums, wound across the plain like an enormous tiger snake. As he looked, a white cockatoo sailed above the river gums screaming.
The bird put him in mind of another bird that three nights in the last fortnight had come skimming out over the mallee scrub just at twilight. A great two-motored bird, flying so low as to appear to have just risen, which could not have been the case, for the mallee was thirty miles or more of deep unbroken scrub. The twilight was. always too thick for him to make out wing markings. Well, some fool in training, practicing hedgehopping at night perhaps. It worried him somehow but he couldn’t say exactly why. It really wasn’t too farfetched that someone should be flying over here for their own good reasons.
But there were other things, too. He hadn’t mentioned it to Celia, didn’t mean to either, but each morning it was his habit to tap his thousand gallon water tank. And he was mortally certain that more was gone than was accounted for. This tank, made of galvanized corrugated sheet metal, caught all the rain water from the roof of his house during the brief but intense rainy season. It had to do them for the rest of the year. The brackish river water was not fit for drinking.
Then there was the bare footprint he’d found this morning up back of the barn. Just one footprint. A black boy’s track, he knew from the broad splayed print. That there was only one was not puzzling. In the loose sand it was very simple to fill in the tracks. Patience was all that was needed and blacks always seemed to have that. But one print had been missed, perhaps because it was in the deeper shadow of the barn.
He went on up to the barn now and hitched Bess to the two-wheeled cart and drove down and picked up the tins of grapes, took them to the drying racks and spread them on the hessians.
That footprint, now. It could only mean that blacks were in hiding. A couple of young bucks might have run off from the reservation and be ducking around in the edge of the scrub, or wild fellows from the interior could possibly be down this far, though it wasn’t likely. Either way he reckoned he didn’t like it. Now that the picking was over he’d take a swing into Mallarook and report it to the troopers. Couldn’t stand to lose water and the rains two months off.
HE UNHITCHED Bess and cleaned out the sulphur tub against when the grapes would be dry and ready for immersion. Tonight he would begin the irrigation of the orange and lemon grove. He’d notified the pumping station and this morning early he had plowed the contour furrows. His concrete irrigation pool was nearly full, and the pumping station would start at midnight which would bring things out exactly right. It took a twenty-four hour soaking for the grove, and once you started you had to go ahead and finish, or waste water and labor.
He heard Celia cooee. “Reckon that’s tea.” He started for the house. His eye was in place. Celia stood outside the kitchen watching him come. A stocky, solid man in faded khaki, his face burned a dark brown under his wide straw hat. He was a good farmer, even if he had never intended to be one and wouldn’t be except for his sensitivity over his lost eye. Of course it didn’t bother him so much now, but when he’d first come back from Gallipoli he’d felt terrible about it and had even offered to let Celia off from her promise to marry him. He reckoned he was a horrible cripple, but she didn’t. “Tea’s ready,” she said cheerfully.
He washed up and they sat down to the meal in the kitchen—an open lean-to adjoining the house.
After the meal they went indoors. Jon filled his pipe and tuned in the Adelaide station and they listened to the war news. “It’s a bad show!” Jon said. He knocked out his pipe and put on his hat.
Celia watched him. When he got to the screen door she said, “Going to fix the stove, Jon?”
Jon paused. “Well, I reckoned it’d be too hot to work on right now,” he said.
She stamped her foot. “Jon!”
“The light’s failing too, be dark in five minutes,” Jon said, going out and closing the screen behind him. “I’ll fix it tomorrow, only I’ve got to get the irrigation started now, you know that!”
“You’re the most aggravatin’ bloke I ever knew,” Celia yelled.
He heard her. “I’ll have to fix it tomorrow, sure,” he said to an orange tree. He turned the water into the furrows and with his shovel on his shoulder, “like a ruddy gun,” began patrolling the winding furrows to prevent damming and overflow.
The night was a pit of silence, an empty cup with velvet walls filled with the silver radiance of great brilliant stars. Foxes barked out in the silver of the salt bush, a curlew sang its quivering plaintive note. From far down the river came the muffled thumping of the pump. At a quarter to five, following two earlier breaks for tea, he looked up from his work to find the earth rising out of the shadow, coming up higher and higher.
A grey world. Then drop by drop color fell into it, spread green over the orange trees and the gums along the river. The sand plains richened, turned golden in the new light. Firelike streamers blew up on the eastern horizon, rows of pink clouds huddled across the west. A rusty red penetrated the western sky far up. He stared.
THAT was sand, thousands of feet high, miles deep. “Looks like a bad one!” Jon said. It was a blasted nuisance. Here his irrigation was only half done. The sun popped up into the sky and immediately glared down hotly onto the sands and felt like a sudden hot-water bottle against his back. He stamped his shovel down into the sand and went to turn the water off. He knew what the orchard would look like no later than noonday— drifted full of sand dunes, oh, not deep ones, only eighteen inches deep or so running in swept ridges under the trees. It meant two days work with the scraper levelling again, and then all the irrigation furrows to do over, too.
There was no wind yet. It was utterly still. Then Jon heard the plane motors. He watched the plane slide across the sky toward him, then directly over him. It was too high to see the markings but he could see that it was having trouble. The sound of the motors came to him not evenly but in alternating, screaming roars. The air was rough, that’s what it was. And there was wind at that altitude. “When the sand hits his motors, ta ta!” muttered Jon.
The plane bounced on out of sight over the mallee and Jon tied double tarps over the drying racks. As he straightened up from tying the last knot the first wind came, in the form of little slim whirlwinds. Small grey cones of dust whirling about like dervishes at a prayer meeting. And the sound of the plane came back, and then the plane, circling, a black winged creature seeking a harbor before the terror of the great red wall of sand that was like a dam across all the west.
Like a black butterfly it fluttered and twisted and beat against the net of rough air and thinly flowing sand, losing altitude. The motors coughed, sputtered and died. The plane hung there for a moment, then was flung up on a powerful updraft, only to twist over and shoot down. It crashed in the edge of the mallee.
Jon, watching with an intensity that obliterated everything else, saw the ominous sharklike bird plunge into the scrub and disappear. Even under his feet the ground staggered a little and the sound of a blow sufficient to smash up tons of metal followed immediately.
“She’s a gone duck!” he thought. “She’s a gone duck!” His heart was pounding as though he’d been running and he was bathed in perspiration. He began to run through the heavy sand toward the scrub. It was about five hundred yards away. He was not yet to the mallee when the storm hit. He stopped and put his back to the flying sand, fetched out his bandanna and tied it over his nose and mouth.
In the time that took the world had vanished. It was not absolutely dark but a sort of rusty twilight. The sand stung into his back like needles. It swept around him like water, a flowing, stinging body, smothering in its intensity. He couldn’t have seen an object five feet away. He stumbled along toward the scrub, or what he hoped was toward it, hoping to get some slight protection on its edge. After he had gone far enough to have made the scrub and hadn’t, he stopped, turned half around and stumbled in the new direction.
This time he found the scrub by bumping into the boles of the thickly growing mallee. It was not much better here. The sand particles didn’t have such a sharp sting but the blanket of flying sand was as thick and smothering. He moved in deeper but it made no difference; the earth was blowing away.
HE WONDERED where the plane was. Not far away, he was sure, but it might as well be miles. He listened and heard only the swisha whisha of the sand. You could no more hear through the thickness of sand than you could see through it. Well, there was nothing to do but stand still and wait. If he wandered around he might get deep in the mallee and be lost for good. He reckoned the storm would blow itself out presently. It was too heavy to last long.
For perhaps an hour he stood leaning back against the weight of blowing sand. Then it began to thin. The red trunks of the mallee scrub took shape around him. As he looked about and saw nothing but the scrub he realized he’d got in deeper than he thought. The mallee stood eight to ten feet high. The trunks were thin, an inch or so thick; the thin spear leaves dripped down and each tree was like the next. It was impossible to see out of the scrub from any depth in. In the bare sand there were no landmarks. The sun was never visible through the thick spear leaves.
Jon got down on his hands and knees and tried to peer out through the trunks. If the sun were shining on the salt bush flats he might see outside. He couldn’t see any sunlight; the sun was likely still obscured by the dust cloud. But he did see something. It was naked metal! The blanky plane! He crawled toward it, because when he stood up he couldn’t see it.
His glass eye was bothering him. In spite of the bandanna, sand had got in around the jumped-up thing. Now he could see more of the plane. What a big thing it was when a man got up close to it ! It was pretty well scattered, bashed in. In fact already he was up to a .huge piece of wing, shiny as silver. When he had seen it in the sky it had been a black blue color, but the storm had changed that. The flying sand had worked on it like a wire brush, leaving the remnants of the ship polished and shiny-bright. Shining and dead.
The marvel was that that great metal thing had ever been a bird. It had flattened down the scrub for three hundred feet around. Cleared it as though it had been scythed. The ship had dug an enormous hole in the sand and bounced out. The nose was crinkled up like a smashed tin can. A man’s body hung out of the gaping greenhouse like a half filled sack of oats. An engine torn loose lay half buried in the sand. Another loose body was spreadeagled beside it. A man stood leaning against what was left of the fuselage smoking a cigarette. His helmet was off and he looked punch drunk. He was a Jap!
A halloo sounded from the bush. The Jap turned his head slowly toward the sound, but he made no effort to answer. Jon waited, hidden in the foliage behind the scrap of wing. There was something odd about that halloo. An Australian would have given a cooee.
He was rewarded presently by seeing a black boy come silently into the opening before the plane. He wasn’t from a reservation; he was a wild boy with twisted bark around his loins and chalk streaks on his body and bits of things tied in his wool. He carried a spear. But no black had shouted that halloo. The black just stood there, his spear half raised, and watched the Jap. The Jap said nothing, and did not move.
In another moment a white man shouldered out of the bush and stopped beside the black. “Dammergott!” He looked at the wreckage, at the Jap. “Das iss . . . ”
"I speak American!” said the Jap.
The little slant-eyed flyer in his flying clothes looked like a wrapped-up bundle loosely tied. He said. “Bad weather for the last three hours, so I am late, see, and then at the last, oh boy!”
The white man wore the regulation out-back swaggie outfit. Pants tied under his knees with string, a battered old hat, a blue bandanna still tied around his neck; but he carried himself rather too square in the shoulder for a free man. He looked down at the flyer. “Oh boy?” he repeated.
“Terrible,” explained the Jap.
“The gas for the base?” asked the German.
“Dumped! Had to dump it.”
“No one else alive?” the question was purely rhetorical.
The Jap stood there in a long silence. At last he merely said, “No.”
The German’s head tilted back arrogantly as he stared down at the Jap. “You have risked the base!” he said sharply. “You were stupid, my friend!”
A certain ugliness stiffened the small brown man. “Don’t give me that!” he shouted.
The German became suddenly placating. “Now, now,” he said, “naturally I’m upset. The bombers must come in this week end. Fortunately, with the storm we have an excellent chance you were not observed. Certainly we will hold the raid. Even should they find this wreck they still will not know of the base. Suspicion, yes, knowledge, no! For Der Fuehrer—and you wonderful Japanese, too—I do this work. To bring destruction on these swine spawn of Englishmen is, iss . . . ” His face contorted into amazing hatred. “We will destroy them! Heil Hitler!”
THE YELLOW man, looking broader than he was high in his flying clothes, said, “So sorry, Professor. I’m just jumpy, I guess. How far are we from the base?”
The German relaxed. “Five, six miles. We moved the camouflage off for you.”
“I saw it once; but the air! Then I couldn’t find it again. Talk about rough! I lost control of the ship; then the motors conked. You got here quick!”
“The black boy. He came straight here through that storm. Could not see one thing. I held to his spear. He came straight along.”
A sweat not induced by the smothering heat was running down Jon’s face. It was now perfectly clear to him, the bare footprint back of the barn, the missing water, the irregular passing of the supply plane over his farm. It was also quite clear to him that here he was, totally unarmed, practically helpless.
“One fella belong here!”
Ah! He’d got so interested in the Jerry and the Jap he’d forgotten the black. The boy had moved around to where he could see Jon. The two men by the plane, suddenly alert, were looking right toward him, but his position was such that while the black could see him, the others could not.
“One fella here this fella place!” repeated the black.
The perspiration on Jon’s face turned icy. One word from the German and he knew the black would throw his spear. He was no more than two yards off, his wide-bladed wicked-looking spear poised. He was a sight, too—the thin black, scabby, dirty body topped by what looked like a black brutal dog’s head, the thick lips drawn back in a snarl exposing white teeth and the red inside of his mouth, the whites of his eyes showing streaks of blood and the black irises merely holes in his head, steady and gleamless.
Without wavering the stare of his | good eye Jon removed his glass eye | and put it in his back pocket, practically in one motion. He did it without thinking, because for years now he’d always done that before doing anything that called for violent action. Otherwise that glass eye, which was expensive and a nuisance, might get broken, injure his socket or at the very least get lost. He didn’t think all these things now. He just took it out because that was the logical first thing with him.
The effect on the black was magical. He jumped back from Jon like a startled bush turkey. His spear fell in the sand. He pulled things out of his hair—evil spirit appeasers—and threw them at Jon. He screamed, “One big fella devil!” and other sounds in a jumble of his own tongue. Meanwhile he kept jumping back, and suddenly he disappeared completely.
For a moment Jon didn’t realize what it was that had happened. But when he did his hand went around to his hip pocket and patted it gently. “My jumped-up glass eye!” he said reverently. The two men by the plane were staring his way, their pistols out, still not seeing him.
The German called, “Warringa! Warringa! What is it, you black savage?”
“Scared at something,’’said the Jap.
“You won’t see that black for a longish while, if then!” murmured Jon. He was suddenly in a very pleasant humor and he soundlessly whistled between his teeth, “Fellers of Australier,” while he hauled the spear along the sand without showing himself. He got it, then he called:
“Hey, you chaps! The game’s up!”
The German and the Jap stood stiff as boards, staring. “Me and my mates have got you well covered,” Jon ordered. “Take your guns by the handle and throw them over here!” As they hesitated he snapped, “Hurry it up, laddies! Hurry it up!”
The German tossed his gun first. The Jap muttered something and threw his gun viciously. That was fine. It landed in the sand a good bit closer to Jon than it was to the Jap. Still holding the spear, Jon stepped out and picked up the Jap’s gun. Quickly he shook the sand out of it. It was patterned after the German Luger. He knew what to do with it.
THE OPENING torn by the plane afforded a view of the sky, clear now except for a few clouds, the sun visible. Jon had no trouble directing Ids prisoners out of the scrub. He remembered now that he had had no breakfast and he began to feel deuced hungry. At the barn he stopped his charges. “Hold your horses here a bit, chaps.”
He bawled for Celia. When she saw his prisoners her whole face arched into a frightened question mark. She shied around the Jap to Jon’s side. “Hold the gun on these blokes for a sec., will you Celia? The safety’s off.” And he added to the prisoners, “Don’t gamble on her not being good at shooting, chaps. You’ll get stoushed if you do!”
He got rope from the barn and tied them up, the rope running from their wrists to their ankles, holding their backs arched. “A bit uncomfortable, eh?” he asked placidly. “But it’ll hold you!” He pulled them over into the shade of the barn. “They’ll do for a bit right there,” he said.
The bell on the gate down by the river road tinkled.
“Who’ll that be?” Jon hurried down to the house and Celia trailed him, still holding the big Luger, or whatever Japanese copy it was. A horse and buggy were coming up the road past the orange grove to the house.
“It’s Thompson,” said Jon. “You’re a ways from home,” he told ’ Thompson as he drove up. “Come in. We’ll have some tea.”
Jon noticed Celia looking at him kind of funny, kind of triumphantly. She didn’t second his invitation, which was strange too.
“No, thanks. Like to, but I have to get on,” Thompson was saying. “I just stopped by to tell you, Jon, that Whyndham and Lewis and me and MacLellan reckoned we should organize a guerilla outfit along the river here. Can’t any of us get in the army but we can fight! All of us reckoned you’d make us the best captain, Jon. Of course there’s nothing doing around here right now, but it don’t strike me as too silly an idea. Might be a good one, hey?”
“I reckon it is!” said Jon. “I just found out by a circumstance this morning that the Japs got an air base back there in the scrub. Wants cleaning out right sharp! It’ll take some doing to find the blasted place—likely we better get the soldiers in. I got a Jerry and a Jap roped up at the barn.”
“My colonial oath!” exploded Thompson.
“We’ll take ’em into Mallarook, but I got to get some rations in me first, I’m that starved! Get down, Phil, and drink a saucer of tea before we start. Get us a bit of tea, willyer Celia?”
“I will, Captain,” said Celia primly. “Glad to. If you’ll just fix that stove so that even one of the burners will light!”