Hugh cursed the noise rustling outside the tent and buried his ears in the worn blanket. “Damn dingoes louder than a pack a horses,” he growled into the stump that used to be his arm.
The cold had vanished in deep slumber, but now crowded and chilled from all sides. Hugh pulled the moth-eaten blanket closer, tried to ignore the sounds of cracking sticks, and clamped his eyes to work back to the warmth of sleep. Snapping twigs morphed to sharp crackles. Shadows danced through the skinned shade of his eyelids.
“Shit!” Hugh jolted upright as the canvas brightened and yellowed. He pulled his bedroll to his chest, stumbled out the flaps to the waiting inferno. But, the night was calm, cold and crisp - quiet.
White eyes glowed above a campfire. “Eh, Hugh,” said the black face.
“Christ Almighty!” Hugh pounded his heart. “Thought the whole bush was ablaze.”
Nearly invisible against the dark sky, the black face was still, the white eyes seeming to dance and float by themselves. The man warmed his rough, worn hands by the fire, then turned the palms up to the beige underside. “Cold t’night,” he stated.
“No shit, Balun.” Hugh shivered. “Yeh ain’t even wearin’ a shirt.”
The black man shrugged, flip-flopped his long fingers over the flames. Hugh threw the blanket at the Aborigine then settled next to the fire. Felt good. Saved him the trouble of making one in the morning. He dug in his pack, pulled out a shaft of dried sausage. “Yeh ’ungry?”
Balun took the slice of dried meat, chewed it slowly between his teeth.
“What the hell yeh doin’ walkin’ ’round the middle a the night?” Hugh asked.
“Walkin’ in the night. Walkin’ in the day. Same thing, eh? Jist walkin’.”
“’Cept it’s bloody freezin’! Where’s yer shirt, man?”
“Sun come out an’ get too hot. Take it off. Then night comes, put it on. Next day sun come back out. Get tired puttin’ it on an’ off. Jist kept it off.”
Hugh laughed and bit straight from the sausage, shook his head. “Always talkin’ in riddles, Balun.”
“Ain’t no riddles, Hugh. Simple stuff, yeh see?”
“No, I don’t. But I ain’t the one that gotta walk ’round half-naked.” Hugh’s teeth chattered. Balun took off the blanket and held it out. “Naw, I’m good. Keep it,” he said and tightened his arms to his chest.
“Yeh workin?” Balun asked.
“Naw.” Hugh watched the flames, his words slowing with their flicker. “Can't pick ore wiv one arm.”
The black man stretched his trousered legs, warmed his bare feet near the ashes.
“Christ, man!” Hugh slapped his knee. “Yer feet is huge!”
Balun bent his leg to inspect a foot. His straight teeth beamed, showed white like tiny bars of soap. “Big as a roo’s, eh?”
“Got that right.”
The men fell into silence, watched the waltz of the fire. Twigs burned orange, broke and crumbled into neat piles of smoldering ashes. Sparks snapped, shot in the air from the oil in the gum bark. White smoke drifted and warmed the nose and settled at the back of the throat, mingled with the taste of cured meat. Then, behind the fire, Balun rose and balled up the blanket, handed it back.
“Leavin’?” Hugh asked. Balun nodded
Hugh waved away the blanket. “Take it wiv yeh.”
“Naw, gets hot wiv the sun, ’member?”
“Suit yerself. See ya, Balun.”
Without another word, the black man drifted and vanished into the night. Hugh stayed by the fire, flip-flopped his palms over the flames as Balun had done. Beyond the flames, the imprint of the native’s heels and rump still dented the red earth.
“Walkin’ ’round wivout a shirt in winter,” he mumbled to himself. “Damn fool.”
The cold bush stretched wide, wrapped shadows around his shoulders. Hugh tightened the blanket, clutched his crippled half-arm to his ribs. He missed his arm, the wholeness of it. A dingo howled mournfully across the plain. His eyes flickered to the spot where Bulan had sat, settled there for a moment. And he missed his friend.