Dad did n’t travel up with us: he had gone some months before, to put up the house and dig the waterhole. It was a slabbed house, with shingled roof, and space enough for two rooms; but the partition was n’t up. The floor was earth; but Dad had a mixture of sand and fresh cow-dung with which he used to keep it level. About once every month he would put it on; and everyone had to keep outside that day till it was dry. There were no locks on the doors: pegs were put in to keep them fast at night; and the slabs were not very close together, for we could easily see through them anybody coming on horseback. Joe and I used to play at counting the stars through the cracks in the roof.
The day after we arrived Dad took Mother and us out to see the paddock and the flat on the other side of the gully that he was going to clear for cultivation. There was no fence round the paddock, but he pointed out on a tree the surveyor’s marks, showing the boundary of our ground. It must have been fine land, the way Dad talked about it! There was very valuable timber on it, too, so he said; and he showed us a place, among some rocks on a ridge, where he was sure gold would be found, but we were n’t to say anything about it. Joe and I went back that evening and turned over every stone on the ridge, but we did n’t find any gold.
No mistake, it was a real wilderness—nothing but trees, “goannas,” dead timber, and bears; and the nearest house—Dwyer’s—was three miles away. I often wonder how the women stood it the first few years; and I can remember how Mother, when she was alone, used to sit on a log, where the lane is now, and cry for hours. Lonely! It was lonely.
Dad soon talked about clearing a couple of acres and putting in corn—all of us did, in fact—till the work commenced. It was a delightful topic before we started,; but in two weeks the clusters of fires that illumined the whooping bush in the night, and the crash upon crash of the big trees as they fell, had lost all their poetry.
We toiled and toiled clearing those four acres, where the haystacks are now standing, till every tree and sapling that had grown there was down. We thought then the worst was over; but how little we knew of clearing land! Dad was never tired of calculating and telling us how much the crop would fetch if the ground could only be got ready in time to put it in; so we laboured the harder.
With our combined male and female forces and the aid of a sapling lever we rolled the thundering big logs together in the face of Hell’s own fires; and when there were no logs to roll it was tramp, tramp the day through, gathering armfuls of sticks, while the clothes clung to our backs with a muddy perspiration. Sometimes Dan and Dave would sit in the shade beside the billy of water and gaze at the small patch that had taken so long to do; then they would turn hopelessly to what was before them and ask Dad (who would never take a spell) what was the use of thinking of ever getting such a place cleared? And when Dave wanted to know why Dad did n’t take up a place on the plain, where there were no trees to grub and plenty of water, Dad would cough as if something was sticking in his throat, and then curse terribly about the squatters and political jobbery. He would soon cool down, though, and get hopeful again.
“Look at the Dwyers,” he’d say; “from ten acres of wheat they got seventy pounds last year, besides feed for the fowls; they’ve got corn in now, and there’s only the two.”
It was n’t only burning off! Whenever there came a short drought the waterhole was sure to run dry; then it was take turns to carry water from the springs—about two miles. We had no draught horse, and if we had there was neither water-cask, trolly, nor dray; so we humped it—and talk about a drag! By the time you returned, if you had n’t drained the bucket, in spite of the big drink you’d take before leaving the springs, more than half would certainly be spilt through the vessel bumping against your leg every time you stumbled in the long grass. Somehow, none of us liked carrying water. We would sooner keep the fires going all day without dinner than do a trip to the springs.
One hot, thirsty day it was Joe’s turn with the bucket, and he managed to get back without spilling very much. We were all pleased because there was enough left after the tea had been made to give each a drink. Dinner was nearly over; Dan had finished, and was taking it easy on the sofa, when Joe said:
“I say, Dad, what’s a nater-dog like?” Dad told him: “Yellow, sharp ears and bushy tail.”
“Those muster bin some then thet I seen—I do n’t know ’bout the bushy tail—all th’ hair had comed off.” “Where’d y’ see them, Joe?” we asked. “Down ’n th’ springs floating about—dead.”
Then everyone seemed to think hard and look at the tea. I did n’t want any more. Dan jumped off the sofa and went outside; and Dad looked after Mother.
At last the four acres—excepting the biggest of the iron-bark trees and about fifty stumps—were pretty well cleared; and then came a problem that could n’t be worked-out on a draught-board. I have already said that we had n’t any draught horses; indeed, the only thing on the selection like a horse was an old “tuppy” mare that Dad used to straddle. The date of her foaling went further back than Dad’s, I believe; and she was shaped something like an alderman. We found her one day in about eighteen inches of mud, with both eyes picked out by the crows, and her hide bearing evidence that a feathery tribe had made a roost of her carcase. Plainly, there was no chance of breaking up the ground with her help. We had no plough, either; how then was the corn to be put in? That was the question.
Dan and Dave sat outside in the corner of the chimney, both scratching the ground with a chip and not saying anything. Dad and Mother sat inside talking it over. Sometimes Dad would get up and walk round the room shaking his head; then he would kick old Crib for lying under the table. At last Mother struck something which brightened him up, and he called Dave.
“Catch Topsy and—” He paused because he remembered the old mare was dead.
“Run over and ask Mister Dwyer to lend me three hoes.”
Dave went; Dwyer lent the hoes; and the problem was solved. That was how we started.