Two successive seasons the wheat failed—once, when it had grown higher than the fence, a late frost blackened and withered it all up in one night, and once it didn’t grow at all.
“Don’t know,” said Dad gloomily, “don’t know at all.” Then, after reflecting:
“Jimmy Tyson himself couldn’t stand much o’ these seasons. Most uncertain. A season or two more, ’n’ a man might lose all he’s ever earned an’ not have a bloomin’ stick.”
Dad’s reflections only made him unhappy. He wasn’t as brave as he used to be, and the loss of a few pounds worried him and gave him nightmares. Dad was fond of money now. He thought more of it than he did of Mother.
Dad complained of his prospects to old Martin McEvoy of the Twelve Mile. Martin believed in butter. He milked a few old cows and once or twice a week trotted his cart to the railway station; and the inhabitants of Saddletop would stand at their doors and stare and grin at him whenever he passed along the road. Martin and his butter were sources of amusement to them. They regarded it as undignified to take round a lot of old milkers and drag fluid out of them. They were farmers.
“I carn’t see wot you’ve t’ growl about,” McEvoy said, casting an eye over our lucerne-paddocks and at the cattle camped near the gate. “If I hed them paddocks and them cows I’d mek a thousan’ a year.”
Dad grunted his incredulity.
“I wud—no darn mistake.” (A pause.) “Out o’ ten I mek four quid a week now!”—and Martin looked defiant.
“Out o’ butter?” Dad stared.
“Yes, butter!” Martin shouted—“A long sight better’n wheat.” Then he jumped from his cart and dragged some papers from his greasy trouserpocket. He showed Dad an invoice and a cheque. Dad didn’t take his eyes off the cheque till Martin returned it to his pocket with a triumphant snort; then he looked at the lucerne-paddocks and the cows and thought. Martin drove on.
For several days Dad was inactive. He spent his time in a chair on the veranda. Dave and Joe missed him in the paddock. They wished he would stay on the veranda all his life. But Dad was only working out a problem.
Dad left the veranda suddenly one afternoon and went among the cattle. A fine-looking lot they were—sleek and fat; but beyond an odd one killed for our own use, which mostly went bad in the cask and was thrown out, they were only a nuisance on the place and devoured more hay than they were worth. To Dad, though, they were priceless. He was never done with admiring them. They were his pictures—his oil paintings—his art gallery.
“Sixty-five cows. . . . twenty-six pounds a week,” Dad muttered and returned to the house and sat till tea. Dad was cheerful and questioned Dave about the ploughing. Then he broke new ground and spoke enthusiastically of dairying. He went into figures and said the cow-yard was to be put in working order the next day. Dave was silent. Sarah was inclined to debate the matter, but Dad silenced her. “I’ve thought it all out,” he said, waving his hand, “and know just what I’m about.”
Breaking day. A hard, biting frost that whitened everything and crunched and cracked beneath you when you walked was over the land. Cold! Charity was nothing to it. The horses stood shivering at the big gate, waiting for their hay, cockatoos screamed in the trees up the gully, Cook’s roosters crowed faintly in the distance—ours lustily answered back; horse bells tinkled-tankled on the reserve, the smoke of a camp-fire curled into the frosty air, forms of horsemen moved quietly about and a thousand head of travelling cattle took shape.
A whip crack, a shout or two, and the cows, with Bill close on their heels, rushed into the yard.
Dave and Joe and Cranky Jack came out, grumbled at the cold, stared at the travelling cattle moving from the reserve, and started milking. They milked in silence and were nearly finished when Dad’s angry voice was heard at the barn. He wanted to know why the devil the horses were not fed, and shuffled about yelling for Bill.
Sarah brought a can of hot tea and some bread and butter into the yard. Dad came along swinging his arms.
“They don’t want thet here,” he snapped, “take it away!”
Joe grabbed some of the provender and swilled a cup of tea. Sarah grinned.
Dad scowled and measured the milk in the tins with his eye, then entered the yard and inspected the cows and stared sternly at the milkmen. Dad was a watchful overseer.
Dad turned and called boisterously to Sarah as she returned to the house. Joe, in a cheerful mood, pointed a cow’s teat over his shoulder and directed a stream of milk at Dad. Dad danced round and looked in the air and down at his feet and wiped his neck with his hand. Then he growled at a red cow that was facing him, shaking her head and throwing froth from her nose.
Joe entered into an argument, across the yard, with Dave about a pony mare of Doolan’s.
“Get on with the milkin’,” Dad said impatiently, “an’ let the cows out—lots t’ be done without yarnin’.” And he hobbled round again, returning to the same spot and exhibiting increased impatience.
“She’s by B-b-badger!” Joe went on.
“Gerrout!” Dave said.
“B-b-bet y’ quid.” And, as if to book the bet, Joe stood up, placing his bucket on the ground.
“Dammit!” Dad hollered. “Why ’n the devil can’t y’ get on? Are y’ goin’ to be—?”
Joe looked at him. The red cow with the frothy nose had approached Dad closely, and seemed to mistake him for a heap of hay. She wasn’t a handsome beast however you viewed her, or a dangerous-looking one, either.
“L-l-look out that red cow d-d-don’t charge,” Joe said (which was the last thing in the world he expected the brute to do).
Dad glanced down quickly. He was taken by surprise. Sudden consciousness of the cow’s proximity startled him. Like a rooster hit with a brick when half-way up his top note, he cut short a yell intended for Joe and lifting his big right foot aimed a heavy kick at the cow’s head. His boot, a hard, ill-shaped blucher, grazed her forehead and, sliding under the animal’s hoop horns, held fast. The cow swung round. Dad dropped on his back, clutched with both hands at the ground, and waved his left leg menacingly at the brute. Finding Dad a fixture, she became hysterical. She bellowed and ran backwards and put her tongue out in an ugly curl.
“My G-G-God! Help, help!” Dad shouted. The other cows rushed round the yard. One shoved the rails down, and they all passed out.
Dave and Joe sprang to Dad’s assistance. Neither, for the moment, could see a way to extricate him. Cranky Jack jammed a finger into each of his ears and laughed, and looked humorous. Dave rushed to the cow’s horns, Joe to her tail, then the other way about.
Round the yard the cow backed, bellowing more and more. She trampled over Joe’s bucket and spilt the milk, and wiped it up with Dad.
Joe at last seized Dad’s hands and pulled back, pulled till he lost footing and fell down. Then the cow backed right out of the yard, bumping Dad heavily on the fallen rails. Dad cursed at every bump. She proceeded backwards towards the barn. Sarah rushed on the scene, wailing, “Oh, my gracious!” and frightened the beast more. Joe recovered himself and seized Dad’s hands again. Two small dogs, constant companions of Dad’s, arrived. They barked and bit the air near the cow’s head—sometimes near Dad’s—and fell over one another in a struggle for position, till at last Dave, who got tired of shouting to them, let go Dad’s leg, which he was struggling to release, and kicked one of them into the air.
Mother, in state of wild alarm, appeared and added to the uselessness of Dad’s rescuers. Dad lost his hat; he was covered with dust and his shirt came out and hung over his head like a bag. He looked very undignified.
The cow went back against the dog kennel. A bull-dog was tied there. He crouched down and waited for her. “Give us a pull ’ere—quick,” Dave gasped, and Joe jumped to his side. “Little more—now sh—” Just then the dog fastened his teeth in the cow’s leg. She roared and plunged forward, knocked Dave and Joe down and trampled all over Dad. Then she dishonestly raced out of the gate with only Dad’s boot under her horn.
We picked Dad up and dusted him and set him on the veranda to cool. Mother gave him a cup of hot tea. She said he looked as if he needed it. He said he felt as if he did.
Somehow, after that day, Dad took no interest in the milk enterprise. He found other jobs for us, and Cranky Jack forgot to bring the cows in and was not reprimanded.
In a week or so we had forgotten Dad’s dream of fortune and were once more busy with “hard graft.” And presently Dad said that he believed things were on the mend.