Joe also took an interest in snakes, and used to poke amongst logs and brush-fences in search of rare specimens. Whenever he secured a good one he put it in a cage and left it there until it died or got out, or Dad threw it, cage and all, right out of the parish.
One day, while Mother and Sal were out with Dad, Joe came home with a four-foot black snake in his hand. It was a beauty. So sleek and lithe and lively! He carried it by the tail, its head swinging close to his bare leg, and the thing yearning for a grab at him. But Joe understood the ways of a reptile.
There was no cage—Dad had burnt the last one—so Joe walked round the room wondering where to put his prize. The cat came out of the bedroom and mewed and followed him for the snake. He told her to go away. She did n’t go. She reached for the snake with her paw. It bit her. She spat and sprang in the air and rushed outside with her back up. Joe giggled and wondered how long the cat would live.
The Rev. Macpherson, on his way to christen M’Kenzie’s baby, called in for a drink, and smilingly asked after Joe’s health.
“Hold this kuk-kuk-cove, then,” Joe said, handing the parson the reptile, which was wriggling and biting at space, “an’ I’ll gug-gug-get y’ one.” But when Mr. Macpherson saw the thing was alive he jumped back and fell over the dog which was lying behind him in the shade. Bluey grabbed him by the leg, and the parson jumped up in haste and made for his horse—followed by Bluey. Joe cried, “Kum ’ere!”—then turned inside.
Mother and Sal entered. They had come to make Dad and themselves a cup of tea. They quarrelled with Joe, and he went out and started playing with the snake. He let it go, and went to catch it by the tail again, but the snake caught him—by the finger.
“He’s bit me!” Joe cried, turning pale. Mother screeched, and Sal bolted off for Dad, while the snake glided silently up the yard.
Anderson, passing on his old bay mare, heard the noise, and came in. He examined Joe’s finger, bled the wound, and was bandaging the arm when Dad rushed in.
“Where is he?” he said. “Oh, you d—d whelp! You wretch of a boy! My God!”
“’Twasn’ my fault.” And Joe began to blubber.
But Anderson protested. There was no time, he said, to be lost barneying; and he told Dad to take his old mare Jean and go at once for Sweeney. Sweeney was the publican at Kangaroo Creek, with a reputation for curing snake-bite. Dad ran out, mounted Jean and turned her head for Sweeney’s. But, at the slip-rails, Jean stuck him up, and would n’t go further. Dad hit her between the ears with his fist, and got down and ran back.
“The boy’ll be dead, Anderson,” he cried, rushing inside again.
“Come on then,” Anderson said, “we’ll take off his finger.”
Joe was looking drowsy. But, when Anderson took hold of him and placed the wounded finger on a block, and Dad faced him with the hammer and a blunt, rusty old chisel, he livened up.
“No, Dad, no!” he squealed, straining and kicking like an old man kangaroo. Anderson stuck to him, though, and with Sal’s assistance held his finger on the block till Dad carefully rested the chisel on it and brought the hammer down. It did n’t sever the finger—it only scraped the nail off—but it did make Joe buck. He struggled desperately and got away.
Anderson could n’t run at all; Dad was little faster; Sal could run like a greyhound in her bare feet, but, before she could pull her boots off, Joe had disappeared in the corn.
“Quick!” Dad shouted, and the trio followed the patient. They hunted through the corn from end to end, but found no trace of him. Night came. The search continued. They called, and called, but nothing answered save the ghostly echoes, the rustling of leaves, the slow, sonorous notes of a distant bear, or the neighing of a horse in the grass-paddock.
At midnight they gave up, and went home, and sat inside and listened, and looked distracted.
While they sat, “Whisky,” a blackfellow from Billson’s station, dropped in. He was taking a horse down to town for his boss, and asked Dad if he could stay till morning. Dad said he could. He slept in Dave’s bed; Dave slept on the sofa.
“If Joe ain’t dead, and wuz t’ come in before mornin’,” Dave said, “there won’t be room for us all.”
And before morning Joe did come in. He entered stealthily by the back-door, and crawled quietly into bed.
At daybreak Joe awoke, and nudged his bed-mate and said:
“Dave, the cocks has crowed!” No answer. He nudged him again.
“Dave, the hens is all off the roost!” Still no reply.
Daylight streamed in through the cracks. Joe sat up—he was at the back—and stared about. He glanced at the face of his bed-mate and chuckled and said:
“Who’s been blackenin’ y’, Dave?”
He sat grinning awhile, then stood up, and started pulling on his trousers, which he drew from under his pillow. He had put one leg into them when his eyes rested on a pair of black feet uncovered at the foot of the bed. He stared at them and the black face again—then plunged for the door and fell. Whisky was awake and grinned over the side of the bed at him.
“Wot makit you so fritent like that?” he said, grinning more.
Joe ran into Mother’s room and dived in behind her and Dad. Dad swore, and kicked Joe and jammed him against the slabs with his heels, saying:
“My gawd! You devil of a feller, how (kick) dare you (kick) run (kick) run (kick, kick, kick) away yesterday, eh?” (kick).
But he was very glad to see Joe all the same; we all felt that Shingle Hut would not have been the same place at all without Joe.
It was when Dad and Dave were away after kangaroo-scalps that Joe was most appreciated. Mother and Sal felt it such a comfort to have a man in the house—even if it was only Joe.
Joe was proud of his male prerogatives. He looked after the selection, minded the corn, kept Anderson’s and Dwyer’s and Brown’s and old Mother Murphy’s cows out of it, and chased goannas away from the front door the same as Dad used to do—for Joe felt that he was in Dad’s place, and postponed his customary familiarities with the goannas.
It was while Joe was in charge that Casey came to our place. A starved-looking, toothless little old man with a restless eye, talkative, ragged and grey; he walked with a bend in his back (not a hump), and carried his chin in the air. We never saw a man like him before. He spoke rapidly, too, and watched us all as he talked. Not exactly a “traveller;” he carried no swag or billycan, and wore a pair of boots much too large. He seemed to have been “well brought up”—he took off his hat at the door and bowed low to Mother and Sal, who were sitting inside, sewing. They gave a start and stared. The dog, lying at Mother’s feet, rose and growled. Bluey was n’t used to the ways of people well brought up.
The world had dealt harshly with Casey, and his story went to Mother’s heart. “God buless y’,” he said when she told him he could have some dinner; “but I’ll cut y’ wood for it; oh, I’ll cut y’ wood!” And he went to the wood-heap and started work. A big heap and a blunt axe; but it did n’t matter to Casey. He worked hard, and did n’t stare about, and did n’t reduce the heap much, either; and when Sal called him to dinner he could n’t hear—he was too busy. Joe had to go and bring him away.
Casey sat at the table and looked up at the holes in the roof, through which the sun was shining.
“Ought t’ be a cool house,” he remarked.
Mother said it was.
“Quite a bush house.”
“Oh, yes,” Mother said—“we’re right in the bush here.”
He began to eat and, as he ate, talked cheerfully of selections and crops and old times and bad times and wire fences and dead cattle. Casey was a versatile ancient. When he was finished he shifted to the sofa and asked Mother how many children she had. Mother considered and said, “Twelve.” He thought a dozen enough for anyone, and, said that his mother, when he left home, had twenty-one—all girls but him. That was forty years ago, and he did n’t know how many she had since. Mother and Sal smiled. They began to like old Casey.
Casey took up his hat and went outside, and did n’t say “Good-day” or “Thanks” or anything. He did n’t go away, either. He looked about the yard. A panel in the fence was broken. It had been broken for five years. Casey seemed to know it. He started mending that panel. He was mending it all the evening.
Mother called to Joe to bring in some wood. Casey left the fence, hurried to the wood-heap, carried in an armful, and asked Mother if she wanted more. Then he returned to the fence.
“J-oe,” Mother screeched a little later, “look at those cows tryin’ to eat the corn.”
Casey left the fence again and drove the cows away, and mended the wire on his way back.
At sundown Casey was cutting more wood, and when we were at supper he brought it in and put some on the fire, and went out again slowly.
Mother and Sal talked about him.
“Better give him his supper,” Sal said, and Mother sent Joe to invite him in. He did n’t come in at once. Casey was n’t a forward man. He stayed to throw some pumpkin to the pigs.
Casey slept in the barn that night. He slept in it the next night, too. He did n’t believe in shifting from place to place, so he stayed with us altogether. He took a lively interest in the selection. The house, he said, was in the wrong place, and he showed Mother where it ought to have been built. He suggested shifting it, and setting a hedge and ornamental trees in front and fruit trees at the back, and making a nice place of it. Little things like that pleased Mother. “Anyway,” she would sometimes say to Sal, “he’s a useful old man, and knows how to look after things about the place.” Casey did. Whenever any watermelons were ripe, he looked after them and hid the skins in the ground. And if a goanna or a crow came and frightened a hen from her nest Casey always got the egg, and when he had gobbled it up he would chase that crow or goanna for its life and shout lustily.
Every day saw Casey more at home at our place. He was a very kind man, and most obliging. If a traveller called for a drink of water, Casey would give him a cup of milk and ask him to wait and have dinner. If Maloney, or old Anderson, or anybody, wished to borrow a horse, or a dray, or anything about the place, Casey would let them have it with pleasure, and tell them not to be in a hurry about returning it.
Joe got on well with Casey. Casey’s views on hard work were the same as Joe’s. Hard work, Joe thought, was n’t necessary on a selection.
Casey knew a thing or two—so he said. One fine morning, when all the sky was blue and the butcher-birds whistling strong, Dwyer’s cows smashed down a lot of the fence and dragged it into the corn. Casey, assisted by Joe, put them all in the yard, and hammered them with sticks. Dwyer came along.
“Those cattle belong to me,” he said angrily.
“They belongs t’ me,” Casey answered, “until you pay damages.” Then he put his back to the slip-rails and looked up aggressively into Dwyer’s face. Dwyer was a giant beside Casey. Dwyer did n’t say anything—he was n’t a man of words—but started throwing the rails down to let the cows out. Casey flew at him. Dwyer quietly shoved him away with his long, brown arm. Casey came again and fastened on to Dwyer. Joe mounted the stockyard. Dwyer seized Casey with both hands; then there was a struggle—on Casey’s part. Dwyer lifted him up and carried him away and set him down on his back, then hastened to the rails. But before he could throw them down Casey was upon him again. Casey never knew when he was beaten. Dwyer was getting annoyed. He took Casey by the back of the neck and squeezed him. Casey humped his shoulders and gasped. Dwyer stared about. A plough-rein hung on the yard. Dwyer reached for it. Casey yelled, “Murder!” Dwyer fastened one end of the rope round Casey’s body—under the arms—and stared about again. And again “Murder!” from Casey. Joe jumped off the yard to get further away. A tree, with a high horizontal limb, stood near. Dad once used it as a butcher’s gallows. Dwyer gathered the loose rein into a coil and heaved it over the limb, and hauled Casey up. Then he tied the end of the rope to the yard and drove out the cows.
“When y’ want ’im down,” Dwyer said to Joe as he walked away, “cut the rope.”
Casey groaned, and one of his boots dropped off. Then he began to spin round—to wind up and unwind and wind up again. Joe came near and eyed the twirling form with joy.
Mother and Sal arrived, breathless and excited. They screeched at Joe.
“Undo th’ r-r-rope,” Joe said, “an’ he’ll come w-w—wop.”
Sal ran away and procured a sheet, and Mother and she held it under Casey, and told Joe to unfasten the rope and lower him as steadily as he could. Joe unfastened the rope, but somehow it pinched his fingers and he let go, and Casey fell through the sheet. For three weeks Casey was an invalid at our place. He would have been invalided there for the rest of his days only old Dad came home and induced him to leave. Casey did n’t want to go; but Dad had a persuasive way with him that generally proved effectual.
Singularly enough, Dad complained that kangaroos were getting scarce where he was camped; while our paddocks were full of them. Joe started a mob nearly every day, as he walked round overseeing things; and he pondered. Suddenly he had an original inspiration—originality was Joe’s strong point. He turned the barn into a workshop, and buried himself there for two days. For two whole days he was never “at home,”, except when he stepped out to throw the hammer at the dog for yelping for a drink. The greedy brute! it was n’t a week since he’d had a billyful—Joe told him. On the morning of the third day the barn-door swung open, and forth came a kangaroo, with the sharpened carving knife in its paws. It hopped across the yard and sat up, bold and erect, near the dog-kennel. Bluey nearly broke his neck trying to get at it. The kangaroo said: “Lay down, you useless hound!” and started across the cultivation!, heading for the grass-paddock in long, erratic jumps. Half-way across the cultivation it spotted a mob of other kangaroos, and took a firmer grip of the carver.
Bluey howled and plunged until Mother came out to see what was the matter. She was in time to see a solitary kangaroo hop in a drunken manner towards the fence, so she let the dog go and cried, “Sool him, Bluey! Sool him!” Bluey sooled him, and Mother followed with the axe to get the scalp. As the dog came racing up, the kangaroo turned and hissed, “G’ home, y’ mongrel!” Bluey took no notice, and only when he had nailed the kangaroo dextrously by the thigh and got him down did it dawn upon the marsupial that Bluey was n’t in the secret. Joe tore off his head-gear, called the dog affectionately by name, and yelled for help; but Bluey had not had anything substantial to eat for over a week, and he worried away vigorously.
Then the kangaroo slashed out with the carving-knife, and hacked a junk off Bluey’s nose. Bluey shook his head, relaxed his thigh-grip, and grabbed the kangaroo by the ribs. How that kangaroo did squeal! Mother arrived. She dropped the axe, threw up both hands, and shrieked. “Pull him off! he’s eating me!” gasped the kangaroo. Mother shrieked louder, and wrung her hands; but it had no effect on Bluey. He was a good dog, was Bluey!
At last, Mother got him by the tail and dragged him off, but he took a mouthful of kangaroo with him as he went.
Then the kangaroo raised itself slowly on to its hands and knees. It was very white and sick-looking, and Mother threw her arms round it and cried, “Oh, Joe! My child! my child!”
It was several days before Joe felt better. When he did, Bluey and he went down the gully together, and, after a while, Joe came back—like Butler—alone.