Farming was not the drag—the wretched, murderous drudgery it used to be. We were improving every day—climbing rapidly to the lap of comfort. The wheat turned out a success again, and the profit made us all rejoice. Still we kept our heads. The frequent want of a shilling had taught us the worth of one. We were not extravagant. Mother, in her thankfulness, attributed our success to the mercy and goodness of God. Dad reckoned ‘t was all due to his own head.
“Well, yairs,” he would sometimes admit, upon pressure, “th’ boys do a good deal, an’ the women’ve done a bit one way er another, too, but all with th’ hands; an’ where’d be the good o’ it if there wer’ no head? . . . Their hands, but my head!”
On that point Dad was emphatic. From his decision there was no appeal. Dad was the Judge, the Full Court, and the Privy Council, too, on our selection.
Things were worked methodically—almost reduced to a science. To Dave was allotted a three-furrow plough and a set of horses which none but himself used; Joe had a double-furrow and separate horses; Little Bill rose at cockcrow and brought all horses from the grass-paddock and drove them back last thing at night—drove them gently in obedience to Dad’s orders until he got out of sight, when he rushed and raced them for their lives and flogged them through the rails. The horses did their best to get through without maiming themselves, but the odds were always on Little Bill.
Dad poked and pottered about—didn’t do much—did very little in a most impressive way. He fed the horses, and patched bags, and made a legrope occasionally, and sooled the dog on the fowls if ever they approached the cultivation, and cooeed and shook his fist menacingly at Dave and Joe when they sat on the ploughs yarning, and followed in the tracks of the men who pulled and gathered the corn, and found cobs they missed, and swore. He rarely remained longer than a minute in one place; he was everywhere, warning and worrying everyone. He praised the farm and explained things to anyone who called and in a lofty manner disregarded the solicitations of travellers. He put them all off with an eloquent wave of the hand. Travellers were not fond of Dad.
A bright, sunny day, after a heavy frost. Dave and Joe following the ploughs, up and.down, and round and round. Joe came to a standstill and stared across the field.
“What th’ deuce is he after now?” he said, following the running form of Dad with his eyes.
Dave stopped his team and stared also.
Dad crossed the cultivation, entered the grass-paddock, and ran along a wide gully through some thick timber. Three of the Regan boys—from fourteen to twenty years old—were there doing something with a stout, springy sapling. They had it bent, bow-fashion, to the ground, and kept in position by a lever. A wire noose was fastened to the sapling. It was an ingenious arrangement they had conceived to catch dingoes with, and they were standing contemplating its construction. Dad came with a rush, and tried to fall on one of them. But the Regans were all runners. They decamped.
“If I don’t make y’r eyes black when I catch y’r, then d—n me!” Dad shouted after them. They ran harder.
Dad turned to the bent sapling—looked at it—wondered what it meant. He kicked up leaves and dirt in search of enlightenment. He kicked his foot into the noose and tripped. The sapling left the lever and flew up, taking Dad with it. Dad was enlightened. The sapling wasn’t strong enough to swing all of him in the air—it elevated his heels till only his head and chest and arms were in touch with the ground. He swung like a slaughtered bullock partly hoisted to the gallows. He swore lamentably—he roared and wriggled, he kicked with the limb that was free, and clutched at the grass. He bared a patch of ground about his head and went through a series of swimming movements with his hands. Yet he swung.
A pocket-knife and a two-shilling piece fell out of his trouser-pocket. He clutched them and held them fast in his hand. Then he ceased struggling and began to use his head.
Dave and Joe were still staring in the direction of the gully and wondering. But they were nearly a mile off.
Regan’s dog, which had gone hunting through the paddock on its own account while the Regan boys were setting the snare, returned panting to the place. It was a dog with a lot of the bull breed in it—an ugly, surly, sulky dog with a thick drooping under-lip. It had a bad name in the district. Dad knew of its reputation. It trotted up. Dad was hanging motionless, thinking.
He heard the noise. Feelings of hope and thankfulness entered his soul. He strained, and leaning on his hands turned his eyes up to welcome his deliverer. He saw the dog and recognized it and groaned. The dog saw him and stood, staring. It was surprised—astonished. It growled coarsely, gruffly. A cold, creepy feeling passed all through Dad. He glared at the brute with eyes of terror. Then, spurred by desperation, he kicked vigorously and howled for help. The dog sprang back, inclined to fly, but seeing that Dad remained stationary it faced him and barked. And such a bark!
Dad blackened in the face—his eyes threatened to burst. He tried to throw the two-shilling piece hard at the dog. It rolled short. He opened the pocket-knife with his teeth. The dog came closer. It trotted round Dad, drew still nearer, barking, barking. Dad flinched and grasped the knife tighter. There was a pause, on the dog’s part. Dad collected his thoughts. He became resourceful. He softened his voice and said affectionately:
“My poor chap! . . . poor old fellow! . . . poor—old—boy!”
But Regan’s dog knew a thing or two; besides, it had become conscious of Dad’s helplessness.
Meanwhile, Dave and Joe, weary of wondering, went on ploughing. But the Regan boys, attracted by the barking of their dog, cautiously re-entered the paddock and approached the gully. When in sight of the snare they took in the situation and ran up, shouting to the dog to desist. The sound of their voices only emboldened the brute. It misunderstood. Their shrieks it took for words of encouragement, and, laying bare its teeth, it rushed in and barked close against Dad’s ribs. Dad shuddered and writhed. His flesh twitched. He missed the dog’s nose with the pocket-knife. In return the dog snatched a mouthful of his pants and some of his thigh and would have had more only the Regan boys came up and beat it off with sticks.
They released Dad in a hurry and ran away again, and didn’t wait for anything; there was nothing mean or mercenary about them.
Dad always referred to that experience as one of the things that had aged him before his time.