This was my third day alone on the Tableland, if you could call it a Tableland since it was really just a plateau rising a few hundred feet above the surrounding sandhills. The Tableland was the highest ground for a hundred miles to the east and, to the west, the Simpson Desert stretched for five hundred miles or more. It was a desolate and brooding place covered in
rounded red pebbles with no grass or spinifex and just the odd stand of stunted gidgees. From O'Neils Point, a hundred yards or so from the Camp, you gazed out to the west where the Mulligan met Eyre Creek and the green belt of gums that marked their courses faded away to the south as their underground waters disappeared into the shifting whispering sands of the Simpson. Beyond the seemingly dry river bed the trees disappeared, and the red sand hills marched relentlessly like the waves of an inland sea to the horizon which became blurred between sand and sky by the shimmering heat.
I had met Mike in the bar of the Royal in Innisfail just after I had finished my last cut. He had just finished too and we were both a bit fed up with the cane. Cane cutting was hard work, we were not getting any younger and the mechanical harvesters had started to appear. I had heard some of the old blokes say that the infernal machines would never work, but I reckoned they were wrong. As far as I could see there would be no jobs for cutters in a few years, it was time to get out. Mike was from the Isa and he said that he knew of a likely place to do a bit of prospecting, south of the Isa down past
Dajarra. I had a few bob in my pocket and the idea of getting back out west seemed pretty good to me. I never thought, when I came east to the coast, that I would ever get tired of rain, but I had. It never seemed to do anything but rain in Innisfail; it just rained and rained and rained. So Mike and I caught the next train out to the Isa.
The towering rainforests that plunged down from rain misted sky to meet the neat geometry of cane fields faded from mind as the train moved steadily west. The rolling plains stretched golden brown out to the sky in sharp contrast to the emerald sheen of
the coast. The train crawled westward under an endless canopy of blue pausing now and then to slake its thirst from the riveted iron tanks beside the tracks and giving us the opportunity to do likewise. A few days later we left the plains and were in the mountains, not the mountains of the coastal divide clothed in glistening green, but ranges of the centre shaded in reds and blues. Mountains that contained the wealth of copper ore that was Mt. Isa.
Mt. Isa was new to me, busy and bustling. The raw energy and perpetual motion of the mine seemed to have infected the town sprawling at its feet on the opposite side of the Leichardt. Not that the Leichardt had any water in it, just a bed of sand that occasionally became a boiling torrent in a momentary flow to the Gulf away to the north. We did not spend long in the Isa, less than a week while we checked out the Mining Warden's Office. I bought myself a motor bike, a BSA which caught my eye, and then we bought an old Land Rover to move us and the gear we were collecting out to the Toko Ranges.
We had spent a few months poking around and here we were on the Toko jump up that stood like the edge of a sea in front of the rolling waves of sand sweeping in from the Simpson. We had found a little colour in a quartz blow and Mike had hurried off to the Isa to register the claim, not that I thought it would come to much but you always dreamed of the big one and this might just be it. He had taken the Land Rover and left me to look after the shop. I did not expect to see anyone since we had been out here about two months and had not seen a soul, but as Mike said, you couldn't be too careful so one of us would have to stay. Just the same not too many people wandered around this country, just a few fools like us looking to find the big one. And maybe this time we had found it, then again we probably hadn't.
I finished my smoke and decided it had got cool enough to walk down to the river and pour a few buckets of water over myself out of the soak hole we had scooped in the sandy bed. It was a fair old hike down the jump up and across to the river, a mile and a half or maybe two mile with the walk back and the climb up the jump up, twice as hard. Still it would be worth it and the sun would be set before I got back so the climb would not be too bad. As I collected the bucket I heard something and looked up to see this bloke walking towards me out of the mulga behind the camp.
" Hi " he called out in a very American twang.
" G'day " I said, "you gave me quite a fright appearing out of nowhere like that".
“Sorry, I didn't know there was anyone here," he replied quietly as he strolled up rather hesitantly.
I grinned and said that I didn't think there was anyone for hundreds of miles until he had popped out of the scrub. Of course I was curious as to how he had got there but it didn't pay to ask too many questions when you met someone out in the back blocks, so I asked him if he would like a cup of tea to which he said yes. He introduced himself as Andrew and sat down on one of the stools and didn't say anything more as I put some timber on the fire and put the billy on. When I had finished he looked out into the distance and asked somewhat abruptly,
"Was that your truck I heard a few days ago?"
"Yes" I replied, "that was my partner off into the Isa to pick up a few things".
"When will he be back?" he asked.
Now I was getting a bit uneasy, this bloke was asking too many questions and questions I did not want to answer, but I replied anyway.
"Some time tomorrow I guess".
He was quiet for a while as I made the tea and poured us both a pannikin full. He said little as we drank our tea, just the odd monosyllabic reply as I rambled on about the heat and the flies. When he had finished he stood up and said he would have to be off, in some astonishment at his abruptness I said,
"How far is your camp?"
He smiled a little at my obvious surprise to his somewhat precipitous departure and replied,
"It is not far, a mile or two down the escarpment. I left my horse over on the other side of the gidgees, that is how I got here. I passed your mine on the way over, you have a likely looking spot there. I would not be surprised if you got a bit out of it. I struck some good rock not too far from here a few years ago and made a tidy little packet out of it, and that was crushing the quartz and washing it by hand. Had a bit of trouble with my partner and lost the lot. I hope you can trust your mate more than than I should have trusted mine. Well I must be off now, I will be going past tomorrow so might drop in again if that is OK with you."
I said that was fine and watched in some puzzlement as he strode off towards the stand of gidgees a few hundred yards from the camp. What was worrying me was his story of the mine. There had been some mining in the area but that had been back in the Forties just after the war and the Mines Department records were sketchy on just where it had been and the Mining Warden's reports had no mention of any gold recovered. Mike and I had been most particular before we came in to the area, we had checked all the records very carefully. If an area had been picked over by the old timers it was unlikely that they would have missed anything and there would not be much point in us looking it over again.
The horse was a bit odd too. Horses had long since gone as transport for prospectors who needed to carry a fair bit of heavy gear around, and while there was feed and water down in the Mulligan floodout, there was precious little anywhere else. I was uneasy but in the end gave up trying to think of an explanation for my new found neighbour's presence.
It was very still that evening and still quite hot so I strolled up to the edge of the jump up to catch whatever breeze there was. Off to the west the sun had nearly set and the horizon blazed crimson. Over my shoulder to the east black clouds piled up in menace but I knew there was little chance of rain, perhaps a few drops and a ferocious display of lightning. There was not a breath of breeze and the air was so dry that static electricity made the hair on my arms and legs erect like the hackles on a dog's back. The light was going fast and the black clouds were by now in boiling turmoil almost overhead. I seemed to be suspended between heaven and earth in a vacuum devoid of life or movement. A strange feeling of unease settled over me and it was then that I saw a light dancing amongst the trees down in the dry bed of the river.
It was pale yellow and occasionally glowed with a bluish tinge. It would be stationary for a while and then move with flickering speed amongst the gums. I knew at once that it was a Min Min, no man made light could move like that. Now I have read all the scientific explanations of methane marsh gas or the static electricity of St. Elmo’s fire but the only explanation that stuck in my mind at that moment was the one told to me by an old blackfellow when I was a kid that it was a spirit being sent to make trouble and turn brother against brother, a Kadaicha who would only go when blood had been spilled.
I realised that the light had gone and that I was sweating even though the temperature had fallen sharply as it does in the desert when the sun has gone.
The next day Mike arrived back about mid afternoon. He seemed preoccupied and listened rather absently to my story of the Min Min. While we were unloading the stores I asked him about the Claim Form he answered that it was filed OK and the paper was in his bag somewhere. Maybe the country had been getting to me but it seemed easier now that Mike was back although he seemed to have something on his mind and I caught him looking at me rather strangely on several occasions. For some reason I did not mention the visit of the American, in fact all of the events of the previous day now seemed a little surreal.
The following morning we started work again on our show. We had driven a shaft down about thirty feet following a seam of quartz down from the surface blow, occasionally dollying a bit of the quartz and washing it to check for colour. By the end of the day we had sunk the shaft another five feet and I was sure that the last skip I had sent up had shooters of pure gold in the rock. When we worked together, I worked at the face and Mike hauled the rock up using a petrol driven windlass. When he brought the skip to the surface he would empty it either on the pile of ore or, if it was mullock, dump it. While he was doing this I usually took a break and sat at the bottom of the shaft.
For some reason, perhaps because I was sure I had seen veins in the last load, I was not at the bottom of the shaft. I was at the face trying to peer up into the corner from where I had prised the last piece of quartz. With an almighty crash the empty skip landed just a few feet away at the bottom of the shaft. I scrambled out from the face beside the skip and looked up to see Mike's face silhouetted against the sky.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yes," I said shaken, "why didn't you call out 'below'?"
It was tradition to call out 'below' when you swung the skip over to lower it down.
"I did," he said "You mustn't have heard me. Then when I swung it out the pin came out of the U bolt, it must have been loose."
It was possible that I did not hear him, I was absorbed in my examination of the seam and the windlass engine had been putt puttering away in the background. I was angry when I got to the surface but the ugly look on Mike's face stopped me from having it out with him about his carelessness, it was his job to check the windlass and make sure that things like that did not happen. Instead I glared at him and stalked off to the camp, more shaken than I cared to show.
Neither of us said much that evening and Mike said he was tired and went off to bed early. I was still a bit jittery from my close call and decided that a mug of rum was what I really needed. While rummaging around in the Land Rover for the rum I found, tucked away, our copy of the Claim Form. The trouble was it only had Mike's name on it. For some reason I did not go and front him, I just walked over to the edge of the escarpment with the Claim in one hand and the rum bottle in the other.
I did not like what I was thinking.
I must have sat on the edge of the jump up for an hour or more trying to think things through. When I at last stood up the Min Min was dancing its ghostly dance amongst the gum trees again and that made my mind up I would grab a few hours sleep and leave before dawn in the morning before Mike was up and around. I would take the old BSA bike, which was mine any way, and that would see me safely into the Isa, if somewhat uncomfortably.
I got little sleep that night and every time I did doze off the flickering yellow light would invade my sleep and I would wake bathed in sweat. Eventually I got up; quietly packed what little gear I had and wheeled the bike about a mile back across the Tableland until I was sure that the noise would not disturb Mike. By that time dawn was breaking and I set off, gingerly picking my way across the rocky plain. The sun was rising directly in front of me and its first rays snuffed out the morning star and ignited the red rocky plain into a blaze of crimson glory. The morning air was cool and sweet and for the first time in days I began to relax.
I was not really surprised when I saw the figure on horseback ahead of me standing quietly beside the track. When I stopped beside him he smiled sadly and said,
"It looks like you have packed up and are off."
I hesitated not quite knowing what to say and eventually simply said yes.
"Well," he said, "I think that you made the right decision, I'm sure things will turn out better this way, you can't stay here now." And without another word he turned his horse and cantered away.
The Isa was bustling and alive and within a few days I had a job out at the Kajabbi. There is one of the new open cut gold mines at Kajabbi about two hundred mile east of the Isa. It is in the Godkin Ranges near the site of an old strike that was worked fifty years ago. The old stamper and cyaniding tanks stand as a decaying memorial to tougher days as the trucks roar past nearby. It was hard work but I enjoyed it. The money was good and the Min Min did not invade my dreams too often. We did not often get into town but the blokes I worked with were good company and within a few months my times on the Tableland scarcely came to mind. One night in the mess hut one of the old timers told us a yarn that brought it all back. I had not been paying much interest in their yarning and leg pulling until his first words captured my attention.
"I knew this Yank who had a show in the Toko Ranges south of the Isa," he said. "It was back just after the war."
"Which war was that," someone interjected "World War 1 or the Boer War?"
Undeterred by the guffaws of laughter he continued.
"It must've been in the late Forties, I met this Yank at the Dajarra pub and we got talking. You know the Dajarra pub?"
His story was interrupted for a while by some general discussion on the merits of the Dajarra pub. Dajarra was the site of a significant rush about the turn of the century and the pub, a hundred miles south of the Isa, has been operating more or less ever since. The pub is all that is left there now, a lonely stone and galvanised iron reminder of what had been one of the toughest fields in the north west. It stands alone on a small flat flanked by the brooding Standish Ranges on one side and the wilderness of the Selwyn Ranges on the other, an oasis of geniality for the few who still scratch a living picking over the old workings. Nearby, a few tumbled piles of weary stones mark the sites of the meager huts hastily built by the miners to protect themselves from the bitter westerlies in winter and, in summer, the pitiless inferno of the sun.
"Anyway this Yank told me that he and his partner had struck a nice little pocket of gold in a quartz blow up on the Toko Tableland." continued our story teller.
"He said that he had come into Dajarra to get away from his partner for a while. His partner had started seeing things and acting real queer. Anyway he was just a bloke I met in a pub and I didn't think too much about his story until a couple of months later when I read somewhere that a Yank had been murdered with an axe by his partner in a dispute over a gold claim. People change when they get a little bit of that yellow stuff in their hands. The strange thing was that according to the Police report there was no gold at their claim, yet that Yank had told me that they had already struck a nice little lode. Maybe the Police put it in their pockets or maybe it is still there if you want to go and have a look for it. I heard that the guy who chopped the Yank up went off his head and never did go to trial, they just locked him away somewhere for the rest of his life."
The Min Min invaded my sleep again that night, every time I closed my eyes it was there twisting and dancing. And I could see an axe, its glittering blade flicking and winking in the moonlight and singing as it swung through the air.
In the morning I told the shift boss that I had to go into the Isa on private business. He was good about it and did not make a fuss. I enjoyed the ride in. It was winter, the day was cool and the bike purred along. The sunburnt red of my country stretched peacefully to the blue of the horizon. I stopped for a moment beneath a corkwood and gazed in wonder at a field of yellow and white paper daisies, a legacy of a recent isolated shower of rain. The gidgees whispered to me as I rode past and as I neared the Isa the familiar rounded shapes of the mountains seemed to lean over the top of me and murmur their secrets of the ages.
When I walked into the Police Station and told them my name the Sergeant almost snapped to attention and said that they had been looking for me. They were pretty good to me too and I felt better after they had gone out and got Mike's body for a decent burial.
I am not too bad now. I will be out in a couple of years and the Min Min has not been inside my head for a long time. It is very peaceful here and I do not mind the rigid daily routine. Nor do I mind the relentless work from daylight to dusk. What I do miss is the blaze of stars at night and the Cross turned over in the morning. But what I miss most is not being able to see the spinifex and gidgee and hear the whispering sand as it marches in crimson ranks to the horizon.