Everything was well fed at Shingle Hut now. A change had come. An air of prosperity was about the place. Broad-backed, upstanding draughthorses, fat and fresh, fed around contentedly; the paddock was stocked with sleek, well-bred cows and spring heifers, and four and five-year-old bullocks fit for a show; the reaper and binder in the shed was all our own, two ploughs were going, and—ye money-lenders!—the mortgage had been paid right off.
For six successive years our wheat crop had been a big success. No matter what Dad did he couldn’t go wrong. Whenever he was compelled to sow late there was sure to be too much rain and early crops would run rank, or take the rust or the smut or something, while ours would come on nicely and be a success. Or else no rain at all would fall—somehow it would wait for Dad—and when Anderson’s and Johnson’s and all the wheat about was parched and perished, ours was a picture good to see. And Dad earned and enjoyed a reputation for long-headedness, for persistence and practical farming. People praised him and pointed to him as a pattern for their sons to follow—an example of what could be accomplished on the land by industry and a bit of brains.
Yet Dad wasn’t satisfied. He talked of selling out—of taking up a thousand acres somewhere and expanding operations. But Mother opposed it; she thought we were doing well enough. Shingle Hut was good enough for her. She had worked hard and spent the best of her days in it, scraping and struggling, and an she asked now was to live the rest of her life there—to die peacefully and be buried near the house.
The rest of us agreed with Dad. We wanted a change. What the result might be we didn’t consider—we only wished to shift. Ripping up the old house, rounding up the stock, camping under a dray a night or two on the way to the Promised Land—gave food for delightful speculation. We longed for it all to come about.
“See anything of him?” Dad asked, as Dave rode into the yard and dismounted, after searching for a lost horse one day.
“No,” Dave said, and leant on the fence and nibbled the end of a straw. Dad leant on the other side and reflected.
A short distance off a new building was going up. Donald McIntyre, a broad-shouldered Scotsman with a passion for politics, and one McDonald, who didn’t believe in governments at all, and confined his studies solely to the weather and pumpkins and profanity, were building a humpy with a shingling hammer. Donald McIntyre was on the rafters, arguing wildly and shaking the hammer menacingly at McDonald, who was on the ground.
Dad and Dave looked up.
“Come doon, ye—!—!” shouted McDonald, and McIntyre sprang from the rafters and pursued him round and round the humpy.
“A fight!” Dave said excitedly.
“Come on!” and he ran a few paces. But at the same moment Joe rushed to the scene out of breath.
“I fuf-fuf-found ’im, Dad!” he said excitedly.
“Where?” Dad asked eagerly.
“Bub-bub-bet y’ can’t gug-guess?”
“Where the devil is he, boy?”
(“Look at McIntyre—after him across the ploughed ground!”—enthusiastically from Dave.)
“Down th’ w-w-well!”
“Wot?” Dad hissed, showing his teeth and punching the wind with his fist.
“Is he dead?” he added.
“Don’t know th-that, Dad, but he s-s-smells!”
Dad groaned and walked inside and out again, then round the yard.
“Yoke up Gypsy and Tiger,” he said sternly to Dave, “and bring them down.” Then he went off to the well by himself.
Dad peered into the well a moment and drew back and pulled a very ugly face.
Dave arrived with the horses. He went to the well to look down but ran away and spat.
Joe held the horses and chuckled.
Dave thought of the wind. It was blowing towards him. He made a wide circuit and approached the well on the other side. But when he leant forward to look down, the wind changed and he ran away again. Dad was determined. He advanced with a frown and a heavy rope, fastened one end of the latter to a sapling close by, and hurled the rest of it into the well—then he, too, retreated.
“Now,” he said to Dave, “go down and fasten it on ’im!”
“Me?” Dave said, backing farther away.
Joe chuckled again.
“Well, y’ don’t expect me to go down, do y’?” Dad snorted.
Dave grinned a sickly grin.
“It won’t kill y’, will it?” Then, after a pause, “Are y’ going t’ do it—or not?” There were shell and shrapnel in Dad’s eye, and he looked ugly.
“W-w-wet y’r nose, Dave,” Joe said, advisedly.
Dave hesitated, then reluctantly descended. He disappeared along the rope and was below some time. He came to the surface again, and gasped and staggered and threw himself on the grass and seemed ill. Change of air didn’t do Dave much good.
Dad fastened the horses to the rope and told them to “get up.” The chains jerked and tightened. Gypsy and Tiger hung in their collars and strained, and tore the ground with their toes. Dad shouted and waved a big stick over them. Captain’s form gradually rose till his head was in sight and his nose caught against the sleepers that lined the mouth of the well. Then he stopped.
“Gypsy! . . . Tiger!” Dad roared, and rattled the stick encouragingly on their hides. Gypsy and Tiger began to tire, and eased off.
“Look out!” Dave cried. “Don’t let them back!” Dad seized their heads and held on. But the dead horse gradually descended again and was slowly dragging the live ones and Dad after it. Dad struck Gypsy on the nose with his fist to make her “stand up.” Gypsy reared and fell across the well and kicked desperately. Then Tiger tried to turn round in his chains and lost his footing and lay on his back, his tail hanging down the well. Dad was horror-stricken. He threw away his hat and ran in several directions in search of something. He found a sapling, lifted it, threw it down again, and ran back to the horses and held his hands above his head like a preacher.
Sal came to tell Dad he was wanted at the house, but he couldn’t hear her.
“Curse it, can’t y’ do something?” he cried to Dave.
Then Gypsy made a big effort to rise and fell down the well and dragged Tiger’s harness with her. Tiger jumped up and made off. Dad stared aghast.
“W-w-what did y’ hit ’er f’?” Joe asked reproachfully.
“Yah!” Dad bellowed, and sprang at Joe. Joe didn’t look behind till he reached the house.
But Burton happened to come along with his bullock team, and rescued Gypsy and dragged Captain’s corpse from the well. Then Dad went for a drink of water in the gully and sat down under a bush, and Sal came and spoke to him again, and when he was calm he went to the house.
The man from town who had offered us £400 for the selection was at the house waiting. They went inside.
“Well,” said the visitor, “have you considered my offer?”
“Yes,” Dad answered, “I’ll take it!”—and Shingle Hut was sold!
Mother clutched her knees with both hands and stared hard and silently at the fireplace till her eyes filled with tears.
Sal ran out to Dave and Joe, and the three of them discussed the turn things had taken. Mother came out to them.
“It’s sold?” Sal said.
“Yes,” Mother replied slowly, “it’s s-s-sold.” And again the tears came, and she sat on a sleeper beside the barn and, hiding her face in her apron, cried hard.
Sal hung her head and thought, but Dave went to Mother and sat beside her, and tried to explain the advantages of selling out and beginning afresh. The man left the house, walked to his horse, shook hands with Dad, and went away.
Then Dad paced up and down, up and down, and round about by himself for a long, long time.
A cold, dull day. Heavy black clouds hung low and darkened the earth. At intervals a few drops of rain fell—a deluge threatened. No gentle winds blew, no birds whistled among the boughs. Dave was passing slowly out at the slip-rails with a dray-load of furniture and farm implements, Joe sitting astride Dad’s old saddle-mare, in charge of the cows in the lane, Dad loading a second dray, Sal putting a horse in the spring-cart, the rest of us gathering knick-knacks and things about the place. We were leaving—leaving Shingle Hut—the old house we had known so long—the old home where Kate was married—where Bill and Tom and Barty were born—the home where merriment so often mocked misfortune and light hearts and hope softened the harshness of adversity.
And Anderson and Mrs. Anderson came to see us off—kind-hearted people were the Andersons. And Judy Jubb came all the way from Prosperity Peak to kiss Sal.
“Good-bye, then, and God bless y’,” Mrs. Anderson said, her large eyes swimming in tears. Mother held out her hand, but broke down and was helped into the spring-cart.
“’N’ I hope y’ won’t regret it,” Anderson said as he shook Dad’s hand. Then with a last look around—a look of lingering affection—we bade farewell to Shingle Hut and started for Our New Selection.