I was young and naive in 1973, even though I’d been to war and seen things that will never leave my memory. Back then I didn’t understand the power of words and the power of being with like-minded companions, and the power of fire and how these powers burn inside the heart; and how all the surface crap gathers on our skins like iron grows rust. I didn’t yet understand the deeper feelings that awake when you see your children born and you experience the struggle of growing a family. I hadn’t felt the pain of being betrayed by people I trusted, nor yet been kicked down so low that I thought I would never get up.
Sitting around that campfire on the Wild Dog River, while the sun edged closer to the horizon, I was perceptive enough to know that there was something unusual going on. This feeling deepened when the evening meal finished, and the entertainment began. The old feller called Chalkie stood with a book in his hand, and a hush fell over the gathering.
‘Give us the Eureka poem,’ someone called.
‘Yes … let’s hear old Henry,’ agreed another.
The old fellow flicked through the book, angled the pages to catch the dying sun and began to read. His eyes moved in arcs, from person to person, and he read the words like a born actor, with expression and passion.
Roll up, Eureka’s heroes, on that grand Old Rush afar,
For Lalor’s gone to join you in the big camp where you are;
Roll up and give him welcome such as only diggers can,
For well he battled for the rights of miner and of man …
There was no longer any sound apart from a few children out in the scattered humpies, the crackle of the fire and night birds. There was a rare unity in that place, and for the first time I understood what brought these people together.
The reader ran through the lines and stanzas of that piece – a work unfamiliar to me up to that time – and I marvelled at how the thunder of the words cracked and rolled around that riverbank, ringing in the very atoms of the landscape.
The sight of murdered heroes is to hero hearts a goad,
A thousand men are up in arms upon the Creswick road,
And wildest rumours in the air are flying up and down,
‘Tis said the men of Ballarat will march upon the town.
But not in vain those diggers died. Their comrades may rejoice,
For o’er the voice of tyranny is heard the people’s voice.
When it was over, the reader’s voice having risen to a shout, mugs were raised and shouts of ‘hear, hear,’ penetrated the stillness.
‘You’ll be marching beside us in no time,’ Alfie said to me, and I had to admit that Henry Lawson’s words had stirred my spirit. I’d suffered enough from the officer class in the army to know which side of the ‘us and them’ divide I pitched my hutchie on.
The poem, I soon found out, was as much of the evening that I was permitted to share, though a glance at my watch told me that it was barely six o’clock.
Nolan nudged my shoulder, ‘I think it’s time for you to go,’ he said quietly.
It was clear to me that this was more of an order than a suggestion, though the sun was still just visible in golden shades through the fronds and leaves of the riverine scrub. ‘Righto then,’ I said. ‘My mate will be back to pick me up shortly.’
‘Well, how’s about you wait for him up there?’ Nolan said, pointing upstream.
I didn’t argue, just stood up and shook hands with Alfie and a dozen of the others around the fire, then waited for Nolan who seemed like he was going to walk with me.
He led me upstream to the place where Owen had brought me in. Following behind were the two heroes who had refused me access to the bank when we first arrived. On the surface this place was full of mateship and good cheer, but by Christ there were some undercurrents.
When we reached the spot where I was to be picked up, Nolan shook my hand, and then he said, ‘Don’t come back tomorra, orright? In the mornin’, start yer boat up and get out of here, all of youse. You hear what I’m sayin’?’
I heard it alright, with a sinking heart. I had enjoyed getting to know the camp-dwellers, and my article was going to be a dud – I’d come a long way to have to stretch a very few facts out to the two thousand words I’d been asked for.
I was pissed off but I tried not to show it ‘Yeah, I hear you.’
‘Orright, good,’ said Nolan, and I watched him hobble back towards the fireside, catching up with his two henchmen, talking together as they walked off. Someone else was reading a poem and there was a swell of applause.
I was standing there, slapping at the mosquitoes that, with the onset of dusk, had joined the midges in whining around my ears and targeting every exposed patch of skin. I waited in silence for the sound of the Evinrude, when the boy who had caught my attention at the fireside appeared from one of the humpies back from the water.
‘Hey mister, you wanna see somefin’?’
‘Yeah, why not?’
The boy delved in his pocket, then held out a weathered, flat bronze disk, the metal catching a final glow in the sky. I took it from his hands, while he hovered expectantly, in case I tried to make off with it. It was a very old medal, I reckoned, as wide across as a playing card, with a hanger at the top, attached to the disk with a tiny bronze rivet.
The face was turquoise with verdigris, but I could make out the vague shape of a stylised lion or perhaps a dragon. There was something that might turn out to be letters and words engraved on the other side, but I couldn’t make them out.
‘You wanna buy it?’ asked the kid.
I glanced back towards the camp to see if Nolan and his trigger-men were still watching me. They weren’t, or at least they didn’t appear to be. ‘Maybe. How much?’
It seemed like a bargain to me. I took out my wallet and counted out a five, then a couple of two-dollar notes and a one. I’d always been a sucker for old things.
‘Where did you find it?’ I asked.
The boy ignored the question, pocketed the money, glanced nervously downstream then froze. He lifted a finger to his lips, turned and made off, making himself scarce before I could change my mind or ask him any more questions.
It was good timing anyway, because I heard the sound of the outboard as Owen motored down to collect me. I climbed into the tinnie with pleasure, feeling like I was back in normal company after spending time with the crazy, passionate outcasts who made the Wild Dog River their home.
Back on the Naika, after a feed and a wash, I stood at the side rail and listened to the sounds of a guitar and singing from the camp. The song was Eric Bogle’s ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. The words, drifting mournfully across the water, made the hairs stand erect on my arms.
Afterwards, however, I heard another sound. I almost dismissed it as a curlew, but there was a human quality to it that couldn’t be mistaken. It was the sound of a child screaming.
Continued next Saturday.
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