After that, whenever I took a contract—to put up a fence or wool-shed, or sink a dam or something—Mary would say, ‘You ought to knock a buggy out of this job, Joe;’ but something always turned up— bad weather or sickness. Once I cut my foot with the adze and was laid up; and, another time, a dam I was making was washed away by a flood before I finished it. Then Mary would say, ‘Ah, well—never mind, Joe. Wait till we are better off.’ But she felt it hard the time I built a wool-shed and didn’t get paid for it, for we’d as good as settled about another second-hand buggy then.
I always had a fancy for carpentering, and was handy with tools. I made a spring-cart—body and wheels—in spare time, out of colonial hardwood, and got Little the blacksmith to do the ironwork; I painted the cart myself. It wasn’t much lighter than one of the tip-drays I had, but it WAS a spring-cart, and Mary pretended to be satisfied with it: anyway, I didn’t hear any more of the buggy for a while.
I sold that cart, for fourteen pounds, to a Chinese gardener who wanted a strong cart to carry his vegetables round through the Bush. It was just before our first youngster came: I told Mary that I wanted the money in case of extra expense—and she didn’t fret much at losing that cart. But the fact was, that I was going to make another try for a buggy, as a present for Mary when the child was born. I thought of getting the turn-out while she was laid up, keeping it dark from her till she was on her feet again, and then showing her the buggy standing in the shed. But she had a bad time, and I had to have the doctor regularly, and get a proper nurse, and a lot of things extra; so the buggy idea was knocked on the head. I was set on it, too: I’d thought of how, when Mary was up and getting strong, I’d say one morning, ‘Go round and have a look in the shed, Mary; I’ve got a few fowls for you,’ or something like that— and follow her round to watch her eyes when she saw the buggy. I never told Mary about that—it wouldn’t have done any good.
Later on I got some good timber—mostly scraps that were given to me— and made a light body for a spring-cart. Galletly, the coach-builder at Cudgeegong, had got a dozen pairs of American hickory wheels up from Sydney, for light spring-carts, and he let me have a pair for cost price and carriage. I got him to iron the cart, and he put it through the paint-shop for nothing. He sent it out, too, at the tail of Tom Tarrant’s big van—to increase the surprise. We were swells then for a while; I heard no more of a buggy until after we’d been settled at Lahey’s Creek for a couple of years.
I told you how I went into the carrying line, and took up a selection at Lahey’s Creek—for a run for the horses and to grow a bit of feed— and shifted Mary and little Jim out there from Gulgong, with Mary’s young scamp of a brother James to keep them company while I was on the road. The first year I did well enough carrying, but I never cared for it—it was too slow; and, besides, I was always anxious when I was away from home. The game was right enough for a single man—or a married one whose wife had got the nagging habit (as many Bushwomen have—God help ’em!), and who wanted peace and quietness sometimes. Besides, other small carriers started (seeing me getting on); and Tom Tarrant, the coach-driver at Cudgeegong, had another heavy spring-van built, and put it on the roads, and he took a lot of the light stuff.
The second year I made a rise—out of ‘spuds’, of all the things in the world. It was Mary’s idea. Down at the lower end of our selection— Mary called it ‘the run’—was a shallow watercourse called Snake’s Creek, dry most of the year, except for a muddy water-hole or two; and, just above the junction, where it ran into Lahey’s Creek, was a low piece of good black-soil flat, on our side—about three acres. The flat was fairly clear when I came to the selection— save for a few logs that had been washed up there in some big ’old man’ flood, way back in black-fellows’ times; and one day, when I had a spell at home, I got the horses and trace-chains and dragged the logs together— those that wouldn’t split for fencing timber—and burnt them off. I had a notion to get the flat ploughed and make a lucern-paddock of it. There was a good water-hole, under a clump of she-oak in the bend, and Mary used to take her stools and tubs and boiler down there in the spring-cart in hot weather, and wash the clothes under the shade of the trees—it was cooler, and saved carrying water to the house. And one evening after she’d done the washing she said to me—
‘Look here, Joe; the farmers out here never seem to get a new idea: they don’t seem to me ever to try and find out beforehand what the market is going to be like—they just go on farming the same old way and putting in the same old crops year after year. They sow wheat, and, if it comes on anything like the thing, they reap and thresh it; if it doesn’t, they mow it for hay— and some of ’em don’t have the brains to do that in time. Now, I was looking at that bit of flat you cleared, and it struck me that it wouldn’t be a half bad idea to get a bag of seed-potatoes, and have the land ploughed—old Corny George would do it cheap— and get them put in at once. Potatoes have been dear all round for the last couple of years.’
I told her she was talking nonsense, that the ground was no good for potatoes, and the whole district was too dry. ‘Everybody I know has tried it, one time or another, and made nothing of it,’ I said.
‘All the more reason why you should try it, Joe,’ said Mary. ‘Just try one crop. It might rain for weeks, and then you’ll be sorry you didn’t take my advice.’
‘But I tell you the ground is not potato-ground,’ I said.
‘How do you know? You haven’t sown any there yet.’
‘But I’ve turned up the surface and looked at it. It’s not rich enough, and too dry, I tell you. You need swampy, boggy ground for potatoes. Do you think I don’t know land when I see it?’
‘But you haven’t tried to grow potatoes there yet, Joe. How do you know——’
I didn’t listen to any more. Mary was obstinate when she got an idea into her head. It was no use arguing with her. All the time I’d be talking she’d just knit her forehead and go on thinking straight ahead, on the track she’d started,—just as if I wasn’t there,— and it used to make me mad. She’d keep driving at me till I took her advice or lost my temper,—I did both at the same time, mostly.
I took my pipe and went out to smoke and cool down.
A couple of days after the potato breeze, I started with the team down to Cudgeegong for a load of fencing-wire I had to bring out; and after I’d kissed Mary good-bye, she said—
‘Look here, Joe, if you bring out a bag of seed-potatoes, James and I will slice them, and old Corny George down the creek would bring his plough up in the dray and plough the ground for very little. We could put the potatoes in ourselves if the ground were only ploughed.’
I thought she’d forgotten all about it. There was no time to argue— I’d be sure to lose my temper, and then I’d either have to waste an hour comforting Mary or go off in a ‘huff’, as the women call it, and be miserable for the trip. So I said I’d see about it. She gave me another hug and a kiss. ‘Don’t forget, Joe,’ she said as I started. ‘Think it over on the road.’ I reckon she had the best of it that time.
About five miles along, just as I turned into the main road, I heard some one galloping after me, and I saw young James on his hack. I got a start, for I thought that something had gone wrong at home. I remember, the first day I left Mary on the creek, for the first five or six miles I was half-a-dozen times on the point of turning back— only I thought she’d laugh at me.
‘What is it, James?’ I shouted, before he came up—but I saw he was grinning.
‘Mary says to tell you not to forget to bring a hoe out with you.’
‘You clear off home!’ I said, ’or I’ll lay the whip about your young hide; and don’t come riding after me again as if the run was on fire.’
‘Well, you needn’t get shirty with me!’ he said. ‘*I* don’t want to have anything to do with a hoe.’ And he rode off.
I did get thinking about those potatoes, though I hadn’t meant to. I knew of an independent man in that district who’d made his money out of a crop of potatoes; but that was away back in the roaring ’Fifties —’54—when spuds went up to twenty-eight shillings a hundredweight (in Sydney), on account of the gold rush. We might get good rain now, and, anyway, it wouldn’t cost much to put the potatoes in. If they came on well, it would be a few pounds in my pocket; if the crop was a failure, I’d have a better show with Mary next time she was struck by an idea outside housekeeping, and have something to grumble about when I felt grumpy.
I got a couple of bags of potatoes—we could use those that were left over; and I got a small iron plough and a harrow that Little the blacksmith had lying in his yard and let me have cheap—only about a pound more than I told Mary I gave for them. When I took advice, I generally made the mistake of taking more than was offered, or adding notions of my own. It was vanity, I suppose. If the crop came on well I could claim the plough-and-harrow part of the idea, anyway. (It didn’t strike me that if the crop failed Mary would have the plough and harrow against me, for old Corny would plough the ground for ten or fifteen shillings.) Anyway, I’d want a plough and harrow later on, and I might as well get it now; it would give James something to do.
I came out by the western road, by Guntawang, and up the creek home; and the first thing I saw was old Corny George ploughing the flat. And Mary was down on the bank superintending. She’d got James with the trace-chains and the spare horses, and had made him clear off every stick and bush where another furrow might be squeezed in. Old Corny looked pretty grumpy on it—he’d broken all his ploughshares but one, in the roots; and James didn’t look much brighter. Mary had an old felt hat and a new pair of ‘lastic-side boots of mine on, and the boots were covered with clay, for she’d been down hustling James to get a rotten old stump out of the way by the time Corny came round with his next furrow.
‘I thought I’d make the boots easy for you, Joe,’ said Mary.
‘It’s all right, Mary,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to growl.’ Those boots were a bone of contention between us; but she generally got them off before I got home.
Her face fell a little when she saw the plough and harrow in the waggon, but I said that would be all right—we’d want a plough anyway.
‘I thought you wanted old Corny to plough the ground,’ she said.
‘I never said so.’
‘But when I sent Jim after you about the hoe to put the spuds in, you didn’t say you wouldn’t bring it,’ she said.
I had a few days at home, and entered into the spirit of the thing. When Corny was done, James and I cross-ploughed the land, and got a stump or two, a big log, and some scrub out of the way at the upper end and added nearly an acre, and ploughed that. James was all right at most Bushwork: he’d bullock so long as the novelty lasted; he liked ploughing or fencing, or any graft he could make a show at. He didn’t care for grubbing out stumps, or splitting posts and rails. We sliced the potatoes of an evening—and there was trouble between Mary and James over cutting through the ‘eyes’. There was no time for the hoe—and besides it wasn’t a novelty to James— so I just ran furrows and they dropped the spuds in behind me, and I turned another furrow over them, and ran the harrow over the ground. I think I hilled those spuds, too, with furrows—or a crop of Indian corn I put in later on.
It rained heavens-hard for over a week: we had regular showers all through, and it was the finest crop of potatoes ever seen in the district. I believe at first Mary used to slip down at daybreak to see if the potatoes were up; and she’d write to me about them, on the road. I forget how many bags I got; but the few who had grown potatoes in the district sent theirs to Sydney, and spuds went up to twelve and fifteen shillings a hundredweight in that district. I made a few quid out of mine—and saved carriage too, for I could take them out on the waggon. Then Mary began to hear (through James) of a buggy that some one had for sale cheap, or a dogcart that somebody else wanted to get rid of—and let me know about it, in an offhand way.