He turned up one morning at the homestead gate. The broad primitive features were wizened with age and framed by a full head of snow white hair. Well, it would have been snow white had it been washed in the last decade. He stood tall and straight, seemingly anchored to the ground by a pair of ugly, flat, heavily calloused protuberances which spread out from beneath the ragged khaki trousers.
“What name, old man?” Jess asked as she reached the gate.
“Me wantem talk longa boss, Missus”, he answered in a quiet, gentle voice.
“Boss out longa cattle, old man. You bin come back longa sundown. ‘Im bin here then, Okay?”
He looked uncertain as he transferred his weight from one flat foot to the other and half turned to gaze back down the road. Jess questioned him further.
“Which way you bin come?”
He grinned broadly, showing a mouthful of even, tobacco stained teeth. “Me bin come longa Zim Smith. Me bin walk plenty long way.”
Jess smiled. “You bin proper hungry eh? Wantem tucker?”
He shook his head. “No wantem tucker, Missus. Me bin catchem plenty mob rabbit. Me wantem chob, wantem work longa this place.” He waved his arm in a wide arc. “Boss, im give chob longa me?”
“Might be boss givem job longa you,” Jess answered. “What for you bin leave Jim Smith – im bin fire you?”
“Ooooh Missus. Im proper bad bugger!” He rolled his eyes and grimaced painfully. “No go back missus, no more work longa Zim Smith. Johnson no go back longa Zim Smith.”
“You bin called Johnson, eh? Well Johnson, you better sit down and wait longa boss. Im come at sundown”.
Johnson took up residence by the gate until evening when Charlie rode home ahead of the plant horses. Charlie thought he was a bit long in the tooth for a job, but told him he could look after the garden for the Missus. He was somewhat taken aback when Johnson declared that he wanted a ‘proper chob’ and ended up telling the old fellow to come up to the homestead at sun-up and he’d find him a proper job.
In the bush after the war, cement was as scarce as hen’s teeth even if the price of it had not been prohibitive, so clay was used to line stock tanks and troughs. It was always handy to have a stockpile on hand and Charlie decided this was job Johnson might find appealing.
After equipping him with a camel and dray, Charlie took him out to the clay pans, impressing on him it was important that he bring home good quality clay and not ‘rubbish dirt’. Satisfied that Johnson understood, Charlie mounted his horse. “You fillem up dray and bring em back – no rubbish, only good clay!” Then, as he turned his horse he added an afterthought, “and don’t lose that bloody camel!”
Because Johnson was an old man, Charlie wasn’t particular about his work hours and there were no hard and fast rules laid down, so long as he turned up with a load of clay now and then. After awhile, both parties were happy with the routine Johnson set himself, even though his stays out on the clay pans were often lengthy.
“What you bin doing, Johnson?”, Charlie would ask when Johnson finally got back with a load which he presented for inspection. “You bin go on walkabout?” Then he’d listen with some amusement to Johnson’s story about how the camel broke its hobbles and how he’d had to track it for days. He spun a good story and Charlie marvelled at how he could tell the same yarn, yet add enough subtle detail to make it different.
Sometimes Charlie would grumble that he was a lazy old bugger and a man ought to do something about him. After all, he was so bloody old he could turn his toes up and die out there and it was a damned nuisance having to keep an eye out for him.
Every so often he had a heart-to-heart talk with Johnson in an attempt to persuade him that it was about time he retired to sit down in the camp with the other old blacks. Johnson would have none of it. “No ploody fear!” he’d say earnestly, “no good sit down hall day – me do good chob longa you eh?”
Charlie’s young daughter took to watching for Johnson’s return from the clay pans. Every day, when the sun was getting low in the western sky, she walked down the dusty track to the creek, ever hopeful that she would be able to hitch a ride home on the dray with Johnson.
Janny invariably went bare-foot despite Jess’ scoldings and demands that she wear her shoes.
Do you want to end up with Johnson’s feet?” she cried in exasperation one day after yet another scolding.
The little girl had not noticed what sort of feet Johnson had but her mother’s tone suggested they weren’t nice things to have, so she shook her head solemnly.
“Then wear your shoes, my girl or you will grow up with feet like Johnson.”
For days after that Janny wore her shoes and waited impatiently for Johnson’s return so that she could have a good look at his feet. In due course she met him at the creek and as she was scrambling up onto the dray to take her place beside him, her eyes focused on the huge, ugly feet.
Mimicking her mother almost verbatim, she took him to task for not wearing shoes. When she had finished, Johnson stated flatly, “Not need em boots, halways not need em.”
It had been puzzling Janny as to the reason why Johnson had to go so far to get loads of dirt. She thought it looked just the same as the dirt in the garden and on the flat behind the workshop where she sometimes played; yet, they called it clay. One day as she was sitting up there on the dray with Johnson, she reached behind and dug her fingers into the heap. Frowning, she sifted handfuls through her fingers and finally exclaimed triumphantly: “This IS only dirt, Johnson!”
In her innocence, she couldn’t have meted out a bigger insult. Johnson, placid and amiable Johnson who had never ever uttered a cross word to her, now exploded into angry action. With eyes blazing he halted the camel and hauled his little friend off the dray to plomp her firmly on the ground on the roadside. “That bin good ploody clay!” he roared, pointing a bony finger at her menacingly. “No more ride longa you, you bin walk halla time”.
Without further ado he was back on the dray, angrily muttering in his own lingo as he sent the camel off in the homeward direction. Janny, shocked and tearful, stood and watched for a few moments before she began to run in pursuit, her wails lost in the creak and rattle of the dray as it moved on down the track. To her eternal dismay, Johnson never ever forgave her.
At times, Johnson over-stepped the line by staying away for two weeks,, and once when he hadn’t returned by the middle of the third week, Jess began to worry. Charlie said he’d turn up in time and if he didn’t it was too bloody bad because he didn’t have time to be traipsing around the country playing nursemaid to a lazy old blackfellow. In the morning however, he went out on horseback to find him.
From a good distance away Charlie spotted the camel and dray under the shade of a lone tree on the plain, and soon it became evident that the dray was empty and the camel still hobbled. It’d be just like the old coot to have kicked the bucket, he thought as he urged his horse on. He was little more than fifty yards away when he saw that Johnson was flat on his back by the side of the dray.
Charlie dismounted and stood over the supine form, dead to the world in contented slumber. Beside him were the remains of a number of cooked rabbits, while at the base of the tree trunk, stacked neatly in a tall pyramid, was the cache of carcases he’d been living off for days.
“Daylight Johnson!” Charlie bellowed, incensed that he’d wasted hours of precious time on an unnecessary excursion.
Awakened so suddenly from the land of dreams, Johnson leapt upright with startling agility. Eyes bulging with fear and heart thudding audibly in his chest, he was on his feet and facing his attacker with spear poised before Charlie had time to think.
Seconds later, Charlie realised Johnson had recovered in the nick of time and he slowly let out the breath he was holding. “Jesus!” He swore softly with relief. Then he grinned at the contrite old man standing before him with head bowed. “What name, Johnson? You reckon kadaitcha bin get you, eh?”
“No boss. Me reckon maybe Zim Smith bin come longa Johnson.”
“Right oh, Johnson. You bin long time catchin’ rabbits – missus bin worry longa you.” With that Charlie mounted his horse and turned it towards home. He looked back a few minutes later and Johnson hadn’t moved.
A few days later, Johnson turned up with his load of clay and this time Charlie didn’t prompt him for a yarn. Johnson made no apologies for being caught napping and he continued mixing work and leisure, but he always turned up before anyone had the notion to go looking for him.
If you happen upon some clay pans out in the bush in Central Australia and you see a grassy area where a lone tree stands tall and shady, approach quietly and you will be sure to see a supine form slumbering contentedly beside a neatly stacked pile of rabbit carcases. Don’t disturb him; leave him to dream on.