Dad was silent; he seemed sad, and lay for some time gazing at the roof. He might have been watching the blaze of the glorious moon or counting the stars through the gaps in the shingles, but he was n’t—there was no such sentiment in Dad. He was thinking how his long years of toil and worry had been rewarded again and again by disappointment—wondering if ever there would be a turn in his luck, and how he was going to get enough out of the land that season to pay interest and keep Mother and us in bread and meat.
At last he spoke, or rather muttered disjointedly, “Plen-ty—to eat—in the safe.” Then suddenly, in a strange and hollow voice, he shouted, “They’ re dead—all of then! I starved them!”
Mother did get a fright. She screamed. Then Dad jumped up, rubbing his eyes, and asked what was the matter. Nothing was the matter then. He had dozed and talked in his sleep, that was all; he had n’t starved anyone. Joe did n’t jump up when Mother screamed—not altogether; he raised himself and reached for Dad’s pillow, then lay down and snored serenely till bed-time.
Dad sat gloomily by the fire and meditated. Mother spoke pleadingly to him and asked him not to fret. He ran his fingers uneasily through his hair and spat in the ashes. “Don’t fret? When there’s not a bit to eat in the place—when there’s no way of getting anything, and when—merciful God!—every year sees things worse than they were before.”
“It’s only fancy,” Mother went on. “And you’ve been brooding and brooding till it seems far worse than it really is.”
“It’s no fancy, Ellen.” Then, after a pause—“Was the thirty acres of wheat that did n’t come up fancy? Is it only fancy that we’ve lost nearly every beast in the paddock? Was the drought itself a fancy? No—no.” And he shook his head sadly and stared again into the fire.
Dad’s inclination was to leave the selection, but Mother pleaded for another trial of it—just one more. She had wonderful faith in the selection, had Mother. She pleaded until the fire burned low, then Dad rose and said: “Well, we’ll try it once more with corn, and if nothing comes of it why then we must give it up.” Then he took the spade and raked the fire together and covered it with ashes—we always covered the fire over before going to bed so as to keep it alight. Some mornings, though, it would be out, when one of us would have to go across to Anderson’s and borrow a fire-stick. Any of us but Joe—he was sent only once, and on that occasion he stayed at Anderson’s to breakfast, and on his way back successfully burnt out two grass paddocks belonging to a J.P.
So we began to prepare the soil for another crop of corn, and Dad started over the same old ground with the same old plough. How I remember that old, screwed and twisted plough! The land was very hard, and the horses out of condition. We wanted a furrow-horse. Smith had one—a good one. “Put him in the furrow,” he said to Dad, “and you can’t pull him out of it.” Dad wished to have such a horse. Smith offered to exchange for our roan saddle mare—one we found running in the lane, and advertised as being in our paddock, and no one claimed it. Dad exchanged.
He yoked the new horse to the plough, and it took to the furrow splendidly—but that was all; it did n’t take to anything else. Dad gripped the handles—“Git up!” he said, and tapped Smith’s horse with the rein. Smith’s horse pranced and marked time well, but did n’t tighten the chains. Dad touched him again. Then he stood on his fore-legs and threw about a hundredweight of mud that clung to his heels at Dad’s head. That aggravated Dad, and he seized the plough-scraper, and, using both hands, calmly belted Smith’s horse over the ribs for two minutes, by the sun. He tried him again. The horse threw himself down in the furrow. Dad took the scraper again, welted him on the rump, dug it into his back-bone, prodded him in the side, then threw it at him disgustedly. Then Dad sat down awhile and breathed heavily. He rose again and pulled Smith’s horse by the head. He was pulling hard when Dave and Joe came up. Joe had a bow-and-arrow in his hand, and said!, “He’s a good furrer ’orse, eh, Dad? Smith said you could n’t pull him out of it.”
Shall I ever forget the look on Dad’s face! He brandished the scraper and sprang wildly at Joe and yelled, “Damn y’, you whelp! what do you want here?”
Joe left. The horse lay in the furrow. Blood was dropping from its mouth. Dave pointed it out, and Dad opened the brute’s jaws and examined them. No teeth were there. He looked on the ground round about—none there either. He looked at the horse’s mouth again, then hit him viciously with his clenched fist and said, “The old ——, he never did have any!” At length he unharnessed the brute as it lay—pulled the winkers off, hurled them at its head, kicked it once—twice—three times—and the furrow-horse jumped up, trotted away triumphantly, and joyously rolled in the dam where all our water came from, drinking-water included.
Dad went straightaway to Smith’s place, and told Smith he was a dirty, mean, despicable swindler—or something like that. Smith smiled. Dad put one leg through the slip-rails and promised Smith, if he’d only come along, to split palings out of him. But Smith did n’t. The instinct of self-preservation must have been deep in that man Smith. Then Dad went home and said he would shoot the —— horse there and then, and went looking for the gun. The horse died in the paddock of old age, but Dad never ploughed with him again.
Dad followed the plough early and late. One day he was giving the horses a spell after some hours’ work, when Joe came to say that a policeman was at the house wanting to see him. Dad thought of the roan mare, and Smith, and turned very pale. Joe said: “There’s “Q.P.” on his saddle-cloth; what’s that for, Dad?” But he did n’t answer—he was thinking hard. “And,” Joe went on, “there’s somethin’ sticking out of his pocket—Dave thinks it’ll be ’ancuffs.” Dad shuddered. On the way to the house Joe wished to speak about the policeman, but Dad seemed to have lock-jaw. When he found the officer of the law only wanted to know the number of stock he owned, he talked freely—he was delighted. He said, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and “Jusso, sir,” to everything the policeman said.
Dad wished to learn some law. He said: “Now, tell me this: supposing a horse gets into my paddock—or into your paddock—and I advertise that horse and nobody claims him, can’t I put my brand on him?” The policeman jerked back his head and stared at the shingles long enough to recall all the robberies he had committed, and said: “Ye can—that’s so—ye can.”
“I knew it,” answered Dad; “but a lawyer in town told Maloney, over there, y’ could n’t.”
“Could n’t?” And the policeman laughed till he nearly had the house down, only stopping to ask, while the tears ran over his well-fed cheeks, “Did he charge him forrit?” and laughed again. He went away laughing, and for all I know the wooden-head may be laughing yet.
Everything was favourable to a good harvest. The rain fell just when it was wanted, and one could almost see the corn growing. How it encouraged Dad, and what new life it seemed to give him! In the cool of the evenings he would walk along the headlands and admire the forming cobs, and listen to the rustling of the rows of drooping blades as they swayed and beat against each other in the breeze. Then he would go home filled with fresh hopes and talk of nothing but the good prospect of that crop.
And how we worked! Joe was the only one who played. I remember him finding something on a chain one day. He had never seen anything like it before. Dad told him it was a steel-trap and explained the working of it. Joe was entranced—an invaluable possession! A treasure, he felt, that the Lord must specially have sent him to catch things with. He caught many things with it—willie-wagtails, laughing-jackasses, fowls, and mostly the dog. Joe was a born naturalist—a perfect McCooey in his way, and a close observer of the habits and customs of animals and living things. He observed that whenever Jacob Lipp came to our place he always, when going home, ran along the fence and touched the top of every post with his hand. The Lipps had newly arrived from Germany, and their selection adjoined ours. Jacob was their “eldest”, about fourteen, and a fat, jabbering, jolly-faced youth he was. He often came to our place and followed Joe about. Joe never cared much for the company of anyone younger than himself, and therefore fiercely resented the indignity. Jacob could speak only German—Joe understood only pure unadulterated Australian. Still Jacob insisted on talking and telling Joe his private affairs.
This day, Mrs. Lipp accompanied Jacob. She came to have a “yarn” with Mother. They did n’t understand each other either; but it did n’t matter much to them—it never does matter much to women whether they understand or not; anyway, they laughed most of the time and seemed to enjoy themselves greatly. Outside Jacob and Joe mixed up in an argument. Jacob shoved his face close to Joe’s and gesticulated and talked German at the rate of two hundred words a minute. Joe thought he understood him and said: “You want to fight?” Jacob seemed to have a nightmare in German.
“Orright, then,” Joe said, and knocked him down.
Jacob seemed to understand Australian better when he got up, for he ran inside, and Joe put his ear to a crack, but did n’t hear him tell Mother.
Joe had an idea. He would set the steel-trap on a wire-post and catch Jacob. He set it. Jacob started home. One, two, three posts he hit. Then he hit the trap. It grabbed him faithfully by three fingers.
Angels of Love! did ever a boy of fourteen yell like it before! He sprang in the air—threw himself on the ground like a roped brumby—jumped up again and ran all he knew, frantically wringing the hand the trap clung to. What Jacob reckoned had hold of him Heaven only can tell. His mother thought he must have gone mad and ran after him. Our Mother fairly tore after her. Dad and Dave left a dray-load of corn and joined in the hunt. Between them they got Jacob down and took him out of the trap. Dad smashed the infernal machine, and then went to look for Joe. But Joe was n’t about.
The corn shelled out 100 bags—the best crop we had ever had; but when Dad came to sell it seemed as though every farmer in every farming district on earth had had a heavy crop, for the market was glutted—there was too much corn in Egypt—and he could get no price for it. At last he was offered Ninepence ha’penny per bushel, delivered at the railway station. Ninepence ha’penny per bushel, delivered at the railway station! Oh, my country! and fivepence per bushel out of that to a carrier to take it there! Australia, my mother!
Dad sold—because he could n’t afford to await a better market; and when the letter came containing a cheque in payment, he made a calculation, then looked pitifully at Mother, and muttered—“Seven poun’s ten!”