And yet we were always out of meat!
Dad was up the country earning a few pounds—the corn drove him up when it did n’t bring what he expected. All we got out of it was a bag of flour—I do n’t know what the storekeeper got. Before he left we put in the barley. Somehow, Dad did n’t believe in sowing any more crops, he seemed to lose heart; but Mother talked it over with him, and when reminded that he would soon be entitled to the deeds he brightened up again and worked. How he worked!
We had no plough, so old Anderson turned over the six acres for us, and Dad gave him a pound an acre—at least he was to send him the first six pounds got up country. Dad sowed the seed; then he, Dan and Dave yoked themselves to a large dry bramble each and harrowed it in. From the way they sweated it must have been hard work. Sometimes they would sit down in the middle of the paddock and “spell” but Dad would say something about getting the deeds and they’d start again.
A cockatoo-fence was round the barley; and wire-posts, a long distance apart, round the grass-paddock. We were to get the wire to put in when Dad sent the money; and apply for the deeds when he came back. Things would be different then, according to Dad, and the farm would be worked properly. We would break up fifty acres, build a barn, buy a reaper, ploughs, cornsheller, get cows and good horses, and start two or three ploughs. Meanwhile, if we (Dan, Dave and I) minded the barley he was sure there’d be something got out of it.
Dad had been away about six weeks. Travellers were passing by every day, and there was n’t one that did n’t want a little of something or other. Mother used to ask them if they had met Dad? None ever did until an old grey man came along and said he knew Dad well—he had camped with him one night and shared a damper. Mother was very pleased and brought him in. We had a kangaroo-rat (stewed) for dinner that day. The girls did n’t want to lay it on the table at first, but Mother said he would n’t know what it was. The traveller was very hungry and liked it, and when passing his plate the second time for more, said it was n’t often he got any poultry.
He tramped on again, and the girls were very glad he did n’t know it was a rat. But Dave was n’t so sure that he did n’t know a rat from a rooster, and reckoned he had n’t met Dad at all.
The seventh week Dad came back. He arrived at night, and the lot of us had to get up to find the hammer to knock the peg out of the door and let him in. He brought home three pounds—not enough to get the wire with, but he also brought a horse and saddle. He did n’t say if he bought them. It was a bay mare, a grand animal for a journey—so Dad said—and only wanted condition. Emelina, he called her. No mistake, she was a quiet mare! We put her where there was good feed, but she was n’t one that fattened on grass. Birds took kindly to her—crows mostly—and she could n’t go anywhere but a flock of them accompanied her. Even when Dad used to ride her (Dan or Dave never rode her) they used to follow, and would fly on ahead to wait in a tree and “caw” when he was passing beneath.
One morning when Dan was digging potatoes for dinner—splendid potatoes they were, too, Dad said; he had only once tasted sweeter ones, but they were grown in a cemetery—he found the kangaroos had been in the barley. We knew what that meant, and that night made fires round it, thinking to frighten them off, but did n’t—mobs of them were in at daybreak. Dad swore from the house at them, but they took no notice; and when he ran down, they just hopped over the fence and sat looking at him. Poor Dad! I do n’t know if he was knocked up or if he did n’t know any more, but he stopped swearing and sat on a stump looking at a patch of barley they had destroyed, and shaking his head. Perhaps he was thinking if he only had a dog! We did have one until he got a bait. Old Crib! He was lying under the table at supper-time when he took the first fit, and what a fright we got! He must have reared before stiffening out, because he capsized the table into Mother’s lap, and everything on it smashed except the tin-plates and the pints. The lamp fell on Dad, too, and the melted fat scalded his arm. Dad dragged Crib out and cut off his tail and ears, but he might as well have taken off his head.
Dad stood with his back to the fire while Mother was putting a stitch in his trousers. “There’s nothing for it but to watch them at night,” he was saying, when old Anderson appeared and asked “if I could have those few pounds.” Dad asked Mother if she had any money in the house? Of course she had n’t. Then he told Anderson he would let him have it when he got the deeds. Anderson left, and Dad sat on the edge of the sofa and seemed to be counting the grains on a corn-cob that he lifted from the floor, while Mother sat looking at a kangaroo-tail on the table and did n’t notice the cat drag it off. At last Dad said, “Ah, well!—it won’t be long now, Ellen, before we have the deeds!”
We took it in turns to watch the barley. Dan and the two girls watched the first half of the night, and Dad, Dave and I the second. Dad always slept in his clothes, and he used to think some nights that the others came in before time. It was terrible going out, half awake, to tramp round that paddock from fire to fire, from hour to hour, shouting and yelling. And how we used to long for daybreak! Whenever we sat down quietly together for a few minutes we would hear the dull THUD! THUD! THUD!—the kangaroo’s footstep.
At last we each carried a kerosene tin, slung like a kettle-drum, and belted it with a waddy—Dad’s idea. He himself manipulated an old bell that he had found on a bullock’s grave, and made a splendid noise with it.
It was a hard struggle, but we succeeded in saving the bulk of the barley, and cut it down with a scythe and three reaping-hooks. The girls helped to bind it, and Jimmy Mulcahy carted it in return for three days’ binding Dad put in for him. The stack was n’t built twenty-four hours when a score of somebody’s crawling cattle ate their way up to their tails in it. We took the hint and put a sapling fence round it.
Again Dad decided to go up country for a while. He caught Emelina after breakfast, rolled up a blanket, told us to watch the stack, and started. The crows followed.
We were having dinner. Dave said, “Listen!” We listened, and it seemed as though all the crows and other feathered demons of the wide bush were engaged in a mighty scrimmage. “Dad’s back!” Dan said, and rushed out in the lead of a stampede.
Emelina was back, anyway, with the swag on, but Dad was n’t. We caught her, and Dave pointed to white spots all over the saddle, and said—“Hanged if they have n’t been ridin’ her!”—meaning the crows.
Mother got anxious, and sent Dan to see what had happened. Dan found Dad, with his shirt off, at a pub on the main road, wanting to fight the publican for a hundred pounds, but could n’t persuade him to come home. Two men brought him home that night on a sheep-hurdle, and he gave up the idea of going away.
After all, the barley turned out well—there was a good price that year, and we were able to run two wires round the paddock.
One day a bulky Government letter came. Dad looked surprised and pleased, and how his hand trembled as he broke the seal! “THE DEEDS!” he said, and all of us gathered round to look at them. Dave thought they were like the inside of a bear-skin covered with writing.
Dad said he would ride to town at once, and went for Emelina.
“Could n’t y’ find her, Dad?” Dan said, seeing him return without the mare.
Dad cleared his throat, but did n’t answer. Mother asked him.
“Yes, I found her,” he said slowly, “dead.”
The crows had got her at last.
He wrapped the deeds in a piece of rag and walked.
There was nothing, scarcely, that he did n’t send out from town, and Jimmy Mulcahy and old Anderson many and many times after that borrowed our dray.
Now Dad regularly curses the deeds every mail-day, and wishes to Heaven he had never got them.