Making a nation


Black Soil

This is my, Peter Abels, account of what I found in January 1852. I am taking my time, as I was instructed and putting in all the details, because the lawyer told me details were important.
My Da’ is a shepherd on MacReady’s run over by Archer’s Creek. He was a clerk back in England before we come here and he always said to me you got to learn to read and write because you don’t want no other man putting down your words on paper for you. That’s writing’s purpose, Da’ says. And because you want to know what others are saying. That’s the meaning of the need to read, he says.
So it’s a Sunday morning and we haven’t any work to do because it’s the Lord’s Day. We didn’t go to church that morning. My Da’ says the bush round about is better than a church for communion with God, anyways, and I remember thinking on that morning that he was right. The sun was gleaming, it was early and not too hot and I was wandering down towards the creek. Ambling, really. My Da’ likes that word when he’s talking about me and how fast I move.
But anyway, it’s glorious not to have work and it was just me because my Ma’ is dead and my brother too, both with the influenza. I was following a small group of red-rumped parrots, they were flitting from one tree to another and I was trying to get a good look. They are beautiful birds.  Da’ says looking at God’s creatures is a form of worship and you got to remember I was not at church, which my Ma would have not favoured… Da’ and I haven’t been good church goers, if truth be known, since Ma went.
          Anyways, those birds were headed towards the creek, feeding and then obviously going to drink, and I wasn’t in a hurry, neither.   Down we went in a lovely lazy kind of zigzag towards the creek. I could hear it running. I love that soft rushing sound the creek makes when it has been good rain and the morning was sounding just right with the long sad calls of doves in the trees on the heights up from the other bank and the zit of the little sittellas in the low bushes by the banks and a breeze just starting up, like sighing in the grasses. I knew where the birds were making, there’s a low sand bank with access to the water and trees and bushes nearby. Those bushes matter because any bird that’s drinking can quickly dash to safety if a goshawk shadow sweeps by - and the trees mean the hawk cannot just swoop in undetected. It’s a haven for birds, that bank.
          And then, like some nightmare demon like that visiting preacher once talked of, up rises this grey gloomy moaning figure, all marked about with spittle and maybe red mud or is it blood near its mouth and it’s staggering toward me. I was near fleeing but his eyes, and I realise by now it’s a darkie, hold me. They’re pleading.
          And I notice he’s talking, something I can’t distinguish in that fluting way they have but I figure he’s begging for help. And he’s down. The words bubble soft on his lips and then die away. His chest is rising and falling and I realise that the spittle is dried vomit and the red is yes, maybe blood mixed with the dried spew, and I am off and running hard the two miles back to where Da’ is perhaps by now out of his cot and brewing up billy tea and simmering porridge for our breakfast.

Da’ came straight away. We saddled Bobbie and rode even though Bobbie is not for us but Da’ says a man is dying and MacReady will know it’s okay.
‘But’ he’s a darkie,’ I said to Da’.
Da’ looks at me because he knows MacReady’s got no time for darkies and has set the dogs on them in the past and my Da’ says.
‘Well he’s a man to me, son, and Macready isn’t having me ignore the fact that all men are our brothers. Slavery’s outlawed,’ my Da’ says, which I still think is very strange. What’s this got to do with slavery?
Bobbie’s quicker than me on foot and we’re back by the creek in maybe 45 minutes.
Da’ stoops down by the man and I am wondering if he’s dead. Da says he is still alive.
Then he looks at me and says, ‘But not for long.’
‘What? I’m cross with Da’ that he’s telling me it’s been for nought. I don’t believe I’ve run like the devil is chasing me and there’s my Da’ telling me something I don’t want to hear.
‘There’s nowt we can do,’ Da said.
I am looking at him and now he’s sitting on the bank, cradling that darkie’s head. His eyes aren’t looking at me  though, they’re looking at something I cannot see. ‘I’ve seen this before,’ Da’ says. ‘He’s been poisoned. Arsenic.’
I don’t ask him how he knows. My da’ knows this sort of thing. He’d been a shepherd down in Victoria on the Goulburn for a while and he’s told us all that he’s seen things there he doesn’t want to talk about.
‘Get me water,’ Da’ said.
I reached my hat into the stream, where the water is running and clear of scum and I took it over to my Da’. He wet his neck chief and wiped away, gentle as anything, the white lines of mess and now I see as the scum around the darkie’s mouth softens that it’s definitely blood. I don’t want to look and I start to move away.
You need to look at this, son.’ Da’ says. ‘This is the monstrous sort of thing some men will do… Look son.’
And I see that the darkie’s really just a young man, maybe two or three years older than me but with a beard coming on. His eyes are like those deep wells we sometimes haul water from up on the flinty hills of Macready’s run.
Every now and then he tries to say something. I fetch more water, the sun rises up towards noon. I am put in mind of Da’ doing this with my brother, Thomas, just before his end.

It took him two hours more to die. I kept getting water and my Da’ wiped this face and talked soft words to him that wouldn’t mean anything other than the soothing noises mother’s make to sick young ones. Just near the end he suddenly jerked upwards and then rolled and throwed up, it was bloody watery stuff coming out of him. Then he shouted something.
And was still. My Da’ held a feather of grass near his nose and it too was still. Dead. He let his head down gentle and stood and looked down. Took his hat off as a mark of respect.
We said nothing.
A crow called. ‘That’s a long sad goodbye from their God’, Da’ said.  Once, twice, three times that crow called, then we heard it no more.
Da’ and I carried the body up away from the sandy creek bottom, up to that black soil country Macready calls God’s own loam. We dug a hole and buried that man. Then we rode back.