The draught-horses stood at the barn, humping their backs, and greedily eating from their nose-bags. The aged saddle-mare, which mostly subsisted on dry grass and long rides, leant over the slip-rails and gazed ponderingly at them. In a corner of the yard a brindle cow, that Dad one day had dehorned with a rail, joyously munched shelled corn-cobs, while near the house an inquisitive steer, with a lumpy jaw, cautiously approached the pig bucket.
Joe, who had brought the horses in, warmed his bare feet at the fire, and sat to breakfast alone, with his hat on. The others had finished and were about. He poured out some tea, and was commencing on a plate of fried pumpkin, left at the fire for him, when “Jacko,” a half-grown pet kangaroo, bounded hurriedly in at the door. He fouled the table and fell, spreading his ungainly form on the floor, and resting some of his tail calmly on the fire. Then he rose with amusing alacrity and darted into the back room. Joe laughed and ate more pumpkin. A smell of singed marsupial reached him, and he chuckled again. Then he called to Jacko to know what had happened. The kangaroo was dumb. Joe called again. Dad appeared at the door, out of breath, and wet to the hips with dew from the greenstuff. He faced Joe angrily and said:—
“Where's that d—n kangaroo?”
Joe took in the situation instantly and was about to say he didn't know when Jacko sneezed in his own peculiar way and betrayed himself. Dad entered the room and dragged him out.
“Hand me that knife,”—he demanded with fearful earnestness, reaching towards the table with one hand, while he strained to retain Jacko with the other. Joe hesitated. Again:—
“Hand me that kni-knife!”
The kangaroo was struggling. Joe was motionless and sullen. Finally Dad secured the weapon himself. Then:—
“No, no, d-d-dad—don't!” Joe pleaded. “Don't kill him!” But without another word Dad forced back Jacko's head, till the skin over the throat almost cracked, then drew the knife across it. Joe clutched his arm and squealed, “Murder!” Dad shook him off, and again swished the blade across. Again Joe squealed. Still Jacko struggled. Dad struck him on the snout, and kicked him heavily in the ribs. Joe moaned. Jacko was subdued.
Then Dad proceeded leisurely to use the knife as a saw. But the thing refused to make as much as a mark. Dad got disgusted. He took the marsupial in his arms and heaved it out of the door on top of the dog, which was staring in at Joe's breakfast. The dog yelped, and limped away, but the kangaroo bounced up like a football and attempted to re-enter. Dad's large, heavy boot met him at the door. It caught him full in the stomach, and lifted him back again. Jacko wisely disappeared round the house.
Dad turned to Joe. Joe moved to the other end of the table.
“You blockhead!” Dad commenced, moving nearer him. “Didn't I tell you to get rid of that d—n thing?” (A pause.) “Didn't I?”
Joe made no answer, but prepared for action. He placed both hands on the table, and, crouching in a springing attitude, eyed his parent in an interested way.
“Didn't I tell you to keep it off the greenstuff?” No reply. Dad edged round the table. So did Joe. Then Dad sprang at him and secured a piece of his shirt-sleeve. Joe grinned involuntarily.
“Stand!” cried Dad, reversing his course—(Joe doing likewise.) “Stir another inch, and I'll knock your brains out!” He brandished the teapot.
Joe stirred fully a foot.
“Stand!” Dad repeated, “or by—!” But Joe didn't stand. He dodged one way, then another, and, kicking down a stool that was in his way, bounded across the room and out the door. The teapot followed him.
A few moments later Dad was harnessing the plough-horses, while Joe, with tears in his eyes, sat concealed behind the haystack. He was despondent and remained quiet for a while, thinking and chewing straw. He noticed Dave a short distance away, digging potatoes and putting them into a bucket. He wished to speak to Dave confidentially. He felt a desire to make Dave unhappy. He would tell him that he was going to clear out, and leave Dad and the selection and the pet kangaroo and everything else to go to glory. He would break up the happy home.
Dave wasn't far off, but Joe deemed it unsafe to whistle or call to him, for fear of betraying his whereabouts to Dad. He stood up and waved his hat about to attract Dave's attention. Dave worked on. Joe paused to think. Then he gave a grotesque exhibition of high jumping. Dave dropped more potatoes into the bucket. Joe reflected again, and an idea occurred to him. With one eye round the corner of the stack in the direction of Dad, he crept out and secured a stone. He was an excellent shot—or believed he was—and thought to lodge the missile in the bucket, to attract Dave. Gathering himself together, he let fly. The stone landed with a thud on the broad of Dave's back, and raised dust from his shirt. Gods, how he jumped and dropped the spade! He contorted his features, screwed and twisted about, and looked up and down. His attention was attracted.
Joe stood still, alarmed and unable to decide what to do. At last Dave's eyes rested on him.
There was an enraged howl, and, with the spade uplifted, Dave ran towards him. Joe decided on action. He fled. Making straight for the back door of the house, he surprised the lumpy jawed steer poking among the pots, his head buried to the horns in a kerosene tin. The startled beast sprang back, and the tin went with him. He had pressed his head into it till it became a tight fit. He looked foolish, and twirled round and round with it. It clung to him. He paused and pondered. Gradually his tail rose to a horizontal position. Then, without warning, he bellowed and blindly stampeded across the yard. The brindle cow started up inquiringly, and some cattle of Anderson's came running down the lane. He carried a portion of an old bark shed away, and nearly brought down Dave, who was hurrying in pursuit of Joe. Dave heaved the spade at the brute, and called to Dad to “Look out.”
Dad glanced round and saw the steer coming. “Way! Way!” he cried to one of the horses (Captain, a newly broken colt) as he was throwing a back-hand across the other. But Captain was nervous. He snorted and turned his head just in time to see the steer collide with the dray. That was enough. Before Dad could reach him he made off, careering madly round and round the yard. The steer wasn't in it with him, particularly when his legs became entangled in the chains. Dave said he never saw prettier bucking. He bucked until there wasn't a stitch of harness left on him—then he fell over the fence into the cultivation and galloped away lame.
Dad didn't speak. He stood watching Captain, until a low, pathetic bellow broke the silence. He turned and saw the steer. The brute was on the broad of its back, between the shafts of the dray, its legs beating the air. Dad went to it and feelingly kicked the tin off its nose. Then he took a rail and poked till it struggled to its feet and departed.
That night, after supper, as Dad and Dave and Joe cleaned the guns and cheerfully talked of going out possum shooting, and as the smaller ones played and prattled merrily on the bag carpet before the glowing fire, no one would have suspected that the harmony of our household had ever been disturbed.