"Have another!" said the man.
Dave grinned, and took another.
Dad ran fifteen cows, successively, to three pounds ten shillings.
The men with the beer took a liking to Dave. They came frequently to him, and Dave began to enjoy the sale.
Again Dad stopped bidding at three pounds ten shillings.
Dave began to talk. He left his place beside Dad and, hat in hand, staggered to the middle of the yard. "WOH!" he shouted, and made an awkward attempt to embrace a red cow which was under the hammer.
"SEV'N POUN'—SEV'N POUN'—SEV'N POUN'," shouted the auctioneer, rapidly. "Any advance on sev'n POUN'?"
"WENNY (hic) QUID," Dave said.
"At sev'n poun' she's GOING?"
"Twenny (hic) TWO quid," Dave said.
"You have n't twenty-two PENCE," snorted the auctioneer.
Then Dave caught the cow by the tail, and she pulled him about the yard until two men took him away.
The last cow put up was, so the auctioneer said, station-bred and in full milk. She was a wild-looking brute, with three enormous teats and a large, fleshy udder. The catalogue said her name was "Dummy."
"How much for 'Dummy,' the only bargain in the mob—how much for her, gentlemen?"
Dad rushed "Dummy." "Three poun' ten," he said, eagerly.
The auctioneer rushed Dad. "YOURS," he said, bringing his hammer down with a bang; "you deserve her, old man!" And the station-manager chuckled and took Dad's name—and Dad's money.
Dad was very pleased, and eager to start home. He went and found Dave, who was asleep in a hay-stack, and along with Steven Burton they drove the cow home, and yarded her in the dark.
Mother and Sal heard the noise, and came with a light to see Dad's purchase, but as they approached "Dummy" threatened to carry the yard away on her back, and Dad ordered them off.
Dad secured the rails by placing logs and the harrow against them, then went inside and told Mother what a bargain he'd made.
In the morning Dad took a bucket and went to milk "Dummy." All of us accompanied him. He crawled through the rails while "Dummy" tore the earth with her fore-feet and threw lumps of it over the yard. But she was n't so wild as she seemed, and when Dad went to work on her with a big stick she walked into the bail quietly enough. Then he sat to milk her, and when he took hold of her teats she broke the leg-rope and kicked him clean off the block and tangled her leg in the bucket and made a great noise with it. Then she bellowed and reared in the bail and fell down, her head screwed the wrong way, and lay with her tongue out moaning.
Dad rose and spat out dirt.
"Dear me!" Mother said, "it's a WILD cow y' bought."
"Not at all," Dad answered; "she's a bit touchy, that's all."
"She tut-tut—TUTCHED YOU orright, Dad," Joe said from the top of the yard.
Dad looked up. "Get down outer THAT!" he yelled. "No wonder the damn cow's frightened."
Joe got down.
Dad brought "Dummy" to her senses with a few heavy kicks on her nose, and proceeded to milk her again. "Dummy" kicked and kicked. Dad tugged and tugged at her teats, but no milk came. Dad could n't understand it. "Must be frettin'," he said.
Joe owned a pet calf about a week old which lived on water and a long rope. Dad told him to fetch it to see if it would suck. Joe fetched it, and it sucked ravenously at "Dummy's" flank, and joyfully wagged its tail. "Dummy" resented it. She plunged until the leg-rope parted again, when the calf got mixed up in her legs, and she trampled it in the ground. Joe took it away. Dad turned "Dummy" out and bailed her up the next day—and every day for a week—with the same result. Then he sent for Larry O'Laughlin, who posed as a cow doctor.
"She never give a drop in her life," Larry said. "Them's BLIND tits she have."
Dad one day sold "Dummy" for ten shillings and bought a goat, which Johnson shot on his cultivation and made Dad drag away.
The Parson and the Scone.
It was dinner-time. And were n't we hungry!—particularly Joe! He was kept from school that day to fork up hay-work hard enough for a man—too hard for some men—but in many things Joe was more than a man's equal. Eating was one of them. We were all silent. Joe ate ravenously. The meat and pumpkin disappeared, and the pile of hot scones grew rapidly less. Joe regarded it with anxiety. He stole sly glances at Dad and at Dave and made a mental calculation. Then he fixed his eyes longingly on the one remaining scone, and ate faster and faster....Still silence. Joe glanced again at Dad.
The dogs outside barked. Those inside, lying full-stretch beneath the table, instantly darted up and rushed out. One of them carried off little Bill—who was standing at the table with his legs spread out and a pint of tea in his hand—as far as the door on its back, and there scraped him off and spilled tea over him. Dad spoke. He said, "Damn the dogs!" Then he rose and looked out the window. We all rose—all except Joe. Joe reached for the last scone.
A horseman dismounted at the slip-rails.
"Some stranger," Dad muttered, turning to re-seat himself.
"Why, it's—it's the minister!" Sal cried—"the minister that married Kate!"
Dad nearly fell over. "Good God!" was all he said, and stared hopelessly at Mother. The minister—for sure enough it was the Rev. Daniel Macpherson—was coming in. There was commotion. Dave finished his tea at a gulp, put on his hat, and left by the back-door. Dad would have followed, but hesitated, and so was lost. Mother was restless—"on pins and needles."
"And there ain't a bite to offer him," she cried, dancing hysterically about the table—"not a bite; nor a plate, nor a knife, nor a fork to eat it with!" There was humour in Mother at times. It came from the father's side. He was a dentist.
Only Joe was unconcerned. He was employed on the last scone. He commenced it slowly. He wished it to last till night. His mouth opened and received it fondly. He buried his teeth in it and lingered lovingly over it. Mother's eyes happened to rest on him. Her face brightened. She flew at Joe and cried:
"Give me that scone!—put it back on the table this minute!"
Joe became concerned. He was about to protest. Mother seized him by the hair (which had n't been cut since Dan went shearing) and hissed:
"Put—it—back—sir!" Joe put it back.
The minister came in. Dad said he was pleased to see him—poor Dad!—and enquired if he had had dinner. The parson had not, but said he did n't want any, and implored Mother not to put herself about on his account. He only required a cup of tea—nothing else whatever. Mother was delighted, and got the tea gladly. Still she was not satisfied. She would be hospitable. She said:
"Won't you try a scone with it, Mr. Macpherson?" And the parson said he would—"just one."
Mother passed the rescued scone along, and awkwardly apologised for the absence of plates. She explained that the Andersons were threshing their wheat, and had borrowed all our crockery and cutlery—everybody's, in fact, in the neighbourhood—for the use of the men. Such was the custom round our way. But the minister did n't mind. On the contrary, he commended everybody for fellowship and good-feeling, and felt sure that the district would be rewarded.
It took the Rev. Macpherson no time to polish off the scone. When the last of it was disappearing Mother became uneasy again. So did Dad. He stared through the window at the parson's sleepy-looking horse, fastened to the fence. Dad wished to heaven it would break away, or drop dead, or do anything to provide him with an excuse to run out. But it was a faithful steed. It stood there leaning on its forehead against a post. There was a brief silence.
Then the minister joked about his appetite—at which only Joe could afford to smile—and asked, "May I trouble you for just another scone?"
Mother muttered something like "Yes, of course," and went out to the kitchen just as if there had been some there. Dad was very uncomfortable. He patted the floor with the flat of his foot and wondered what would happen next. Nothing happened for a good while. The minister sipped and sipped his tea till none was left...
Dad said: "I'll see what's keeping her," and rose—glad if ever man was glad—to get away. He found Mother seated on the ironbark table in the kitchen. They did n't speak. They looked at each other sympathisingly.
"Well?" Dad whispered at last; "what are you going to do?" Mother shook her head. She did n't know.
"Tell him straight there ain't any, an' be done with it," was Dad's cheerful advice. Mother several times approached the door, but hesitated and returned again.
"What are you afraid of?" Dad would ask; "he won't eat y'." Finally she went in.
Then Dad tiptoed to the door and listened. He was listening eagerly when a lump of earth—a piece of the cultivation paddock—fell dangerously near his feet. It broke and scattered round him, and rattled inside against the papered wall. Dad jumped round. A row of jackasses on a tree near by laughed merrily. Dad looked up. They stopped. Another one laughed clearly from the edge of the tall corn. Dad turned his head. It was Dave. Dad joined him, and they watched the parson mount his horse and ride away.
Dad drew a deep and grateful breath. "Thank God!" he said.
It was the year we put the bottom paddock under potatoes. Dad was standing contemplating the tops, which were withering for want of rain. He shifted his gaze to the ten acres sown with corn. A dozen stalks or so were looking well; a few more, ten or twelve inches high, were coming in cob; the rest had n't made an appearance.
Dad sighed and turned away from the awful prospect. He went and looked into the water-cask. Two butterflies, a frog or two, and some charcoal were at the bottom. No water. He sighed again, took the yoke and two kerosene-tins, and went off to the springs.
About an hour and a half after he returned with two half-tins of muddy, milky-looking water—the balance had been splashed out as he got through the fences—and said to Mother (wiping the sweat off his face with his shirt-sleeve)—
"Don't know, I'm SURE, what things are going t' come t';...no use doing anything...there's no rain...no si——" he lifted his foot and with cool exactness took a place-kick at the dog, which was trying to fall into one of the kerosene-tins, head first, and sent it and the water flying. "Oh you ——!" The rest is omitted in the interests of Poetry.
Day after. Fearful heat; not a breath of air; fowl and beast sought the shade; everything silent; the great Bush slept. In the west a stray cloud or two that had been hanging about gathered, thickened, darkened.
The air changed. Fowl and beast left the shade; tree-tops began to stir—to bend—to sway violently. Small branches flew down and rolled before the wind. Presently it thundered afar off. Mother and Sal ran out and gathered the clothes, and fixed the spout, and looked cheerfully up at the sky.
Joe sat in the chimney-corner thumping the ribs of a cattle-pup, and pinching its ears to make it savage. He had been training the pup ever since its arrival that morning.
The plough-horses, yoked to the plough, stood in the middle of the paddock, beating the flies off with their tails and leaning against each other.
Dad stood at the stock-yard—his brown arms and bearded chin resting on a middle-rail—passively watching Dave and Paddy Maloney breaking-in a colt for Callaghan—a weedy, wild, herring-gutted brute that might have been worth fifteen shillings. Dave was to have him to hack about for six months in return for the breaking-in. Dave was acquiring a local reputation for his skill in handling colts.
They had been at "Callaghan"—as they christened the colt—since daylight, pretty well; and had crippled old Moll and lamed Maloney's Dandy, and knocked up two they borrowed from Anderson—yarding the rubbish; and there was n't a fence within miles of the place that he had n't tumbled over and smashed. But, when they did get him in, they lost no time commencing to quieten him. They cursed eloquently, and threw the bridle at him, and used up all the missiles and bits of hard mud and sticks about the yard, pelting him because he would n't stand.
Dave essayed to rope him "the first shot," and nearly poked his eye out with the pole; and Paddy Maloney, in attempting to persuade the affrighted beast to come out of the cow-bail, knocked the cap of its hip down with the milking-block. They caught him then and put the saddle on. Callaghan trembled. When the girths were tightened they put the reins under the leathers, and threw their hats at him, and shouted, and "hooshed" him round the yard, expecting he would buck with the saddle. But Callaghan only trotted into a corner and snorted. Usually, a horse that won't buck with a saddle is a "snag." Dave knew it. The chestnut he tackled for Brown did nothing with the saddle. HE was a snag. Dave remembered him and reflected. Callaghan walked boldly up to Dave, with his head high in the air, and snorted at him. He was a sorry-looking animal—cuts and scars all over him; hip down; patches and streaks of skin and hair missing from his head. "No buck in him!" unctuously observed Dad, without lifting his chin off the rail. "Ain't there?" said Paddy Maloney, grinning cynically. "Just you wait!"
It seemed to take the heart out of Dave, but he said nothing. He hitched his pants and made a brave effort to spit—several efforts. And he turned pale.
Paddy was now holding Callaghan's head at arms'-length by the bridle and one ear, for Dave to mount.
A sharp crack of thunder went off right overhead. Dave did n't hear it.
"Hello!" Dad said, "We're going to have it—hurry up!"
Dave did n't hear him. He approached the horse's side and nervously tried the surcingle—a greenhide one of Dad's workmanship. "Think that'll hold?" he mumbled meekly.
"Pshaw!" Dad blurted through the rails—"Hold! Of course it'll hold—hold a team o' bullocks, boy."
"'S all right, Dave; 's all right—git on!" From Paddy Maloney, impatiently.
Paddy, an out-and-out cur amongst horses himself, was anxious to be relieved of the colt's head. Young horses sometimes knock down the man who is holding them. Paddy was aware of it.
Dave took the reins carefully, and was about to place his foot in the stirrup when his restless eye settled on a wire-splice in the crupper—also Dad's handiwork. He hesitated and commenced a remark. But Dad was restless; Paddy Maloney anxious (as regarded himself); besides, the storm was coming.
Dad said: "Damn it, what are y' 'FRAID o', boy? THAT'll hold—jump on."
Paddy said: "NOW, Dave, while I've 'is 'ead round."
Joe (just arrived with the cattle-pup) chipped in.
He said: "Wot, is he fuf-fuf-fuf-f-rikent of him, Dad?"
Dave heard them. A tear like a hailstone dropped out of his eye.
"It's all damn well t' TALK," he fired off; "come in and RIDE th'——horse then, if y' s'——GAME!"
A dead silence.
The cattle-pup broke away from Joe and strolled into the yard. It barked feebly at Callaghan, then proceeded to worry his heels. It seemed to take Callaghan for a calf. Callaghan kicked it up against the rails. It must have taken him for a cow then.
Dave's blood was up. He was desperate. He grabbed the reins roughly, put his foot in the stirrup, gripped the side of the pommel, and was on before you could say "Woolloongabba."
With equal alacrity, Paddy let the colt's head go and made tracks, chuckling. The turn things had taken delighted him. Excitement (and pumpkin) was all that kept Paddy alive. But Callaghan did n't budge—at least not until Dave dug both heels into him. Then he made a blind rush and knocked out a panel of the yard—and got away with Dave. Off he went, plunging, galloping, pig-jumping, breaking loose limbs and bark off trees with Dave's legs. A wire-fence was in his way. It parted like the Red Sea when he came to it—he crashed into it and rolled over. The saddle was dangling under his belly when he got up; Dave and the bridle were under the fence. But the storm had come, and such a storm! Hailstones as big as apples nearly—first one here and there, and next moment in thousands.
Paddy Maloney and Joe ran for the house; Dave, with an injured ankle and a cut head, limped painfully in the same direction; but Dad saw the plough-horses turning and twisting about in their chains and set out for them. He might as well have started off the cross the continent. A hailstone, large enough to kill a cow, fell with a thud a yard or two in advance of him, and he slewed like a hare and made for the house also. He was getting it hot. Now and again his hands would go up to protect his head, but he could n't run that way—he could n't run much any way.
The others reached the house and watched Dad make from the back-door. Mother called to him to "Run, run!" Poor Dad! He was running. Paddy Maloney was joyful. He danced about and laughed vociferously at the hail bouncing off Dad. Once Dad staggered—a hail-boulder had struck him behind the ear—and he looked like dropping. Paddy hit himself on the leg, and vehemently invited Dave to "Look, LOOK at him!" But Dad battled along to the haystack, buried his head in it, and stayed there till the storm was over—wriggling and moving his feet as though he were tramping chaff.
Shingles were dislodged from the roof of the house, and huge hailstones pelted in and put the fire out, and split the table, and fell on the sofa and the beds.
Rain fell also, but we did n't catch any in the cask—the wind blew the spout away. It was a curled piece of bark. Nevertheless, the storm did good. We did n't lose ALL the potatoes. We got SOME out of them. We had them for dinner one Sunday.
The Agricultural Reporter.
It had been a dull, miserable day, and a cold westerly was blowing. Dave and Joe were at the barn finishing up for the day.
Dad was inside grunting and groaning with toothache. He had had it a week, and was nearly mad. For a while he sat by the fire, prodding the tooth with his pocket-knife; then he covered his jaw with his hand and went out and walked about the yard.
Joe asked him if he had seen Nell's foal anywhere that day. He did n't answer.
"Did y' see the brown foal any place ter-day, Dad?"
"Damn the brown foal!"—and Dad went inside again.
He walked round and round the table and in and out the back room till Mother nearly cried with pity.
"Is n't it any easier at all, Father?" she said commiseratingly.
"How the devil can it be easier?...Oh-h!"
The kangaroo-dog had coiled himself snugly on a bag before the fire. Dad kicked him savagely and told him to get out. The dog slunk sulkily to the door, his tail between his legs, and his back humped as if expecting another kick. He got it. Dad sat in the ashes then, and groaned lamentably. The dog walked in at the back door and dropped on the bag again.
Joe came in to say that "Two coves out there wants somethink."
Dad paid no attention.
The two "coves"—a pressman, in new leggings, and Canty, the storekeeper—came in. Mother brought a light. Dad moaned, but did n't look up.
"Well, Mr. Rudd," the pressman commenced (he was young and fresh-looking), "I'm from the (something-or-other) office. I'm—er—after information about the crops round here. I suppose—er——"
"Oh-h-h!" Dad groaned, opening his mouth over the fire, and pressing the tooth hard with his thumb.
The pressman stared at him for awhile; then grinned at the storekeeper, and made a derisive face at Dad's back. Then—"What have you got in this season, Mr. Rudd? Wheat?"
"I don't know....Oh-h—it's awful!"
"Did n't think toothache so bad as THAT," said the man of news, airily, addressing Mother. "Never had it much myself, you see!"
He looked at Dad again; then winked slyly at Canty, and said to Dad, in an altered tone: "Whisky's a good thing for it, old man, if you've got any."
Nothing but a groan came from Dad, but Mother shook her head sadly in the negative.
"Any oil of tar?"
Mother brightened up. "There's a little oil in the house," she said, "but I don't know if we've any tar. Is there, Joe—in that old drum?"
The Press looked out the window. Dad commenced to butcher his gums with the pocket-knife, and threatened to put the fire out with blood and saliva.
"Let's have a look at the tooth, old man," the pressman said, approaching Dad.
"Pooh!—I'll take that out in one act!"...To Joe—"Got a good strong piece of string?"
Joe could n't find a piece of string, but produced a kangaroo-tail sinew that had been tied round a calf's neck.
The pressman was enthusiastic. He buzzed about and talked dentistry in a most learned manner. Then he had another squint at Dad's tooth.
"Sit on the floor here," he said, "and I won't be a second. You'll feel next to no pain."
Dad complied like a lamb.
"Hold the light down here, missis—a little lower. You gentlemen" (to Canty and Dave) "look after his legs and arms. Now, let your head come back—right back, and open your mouth—wide as you can." Dad obeyed, groaning the whole time. It was a bottom-tooth, and the dentist stood behind Dad and bent over him to fasten the sinew round it. Then, twisting it on his wrist, he began to "hang on" with both hands. Dad struggled and groaned—then broke into a bellow and roared like a wild beast. But the dentist only said, "Keep him down!" and the others kept him down.
Dad's neck was stretching like a gander's, and it looked as if his head would come off. The dentist threw his shoulders into it like a crack oarsman—there was a crack, a rip, a tear, and, like a young tree leaving the ground, two huge, ugly old teeth left Dad's jaw on the end of that sinew.
"Holy!" cried the dentist, surprised, and we stared. Little Bill made for the teeth; so did Joe, and there was a fight under the table.
Dad sat in a lump on the floor propping himself up with his hands; his head dropped forward, and he spat feebly on the floor.
The pressman laughed and slapped Dad on the back, and asked "How do you feel, old boy?" Dad shook his head and spat and spat. But presently he wiped his eyes with his shirt-sleeve and looked up. The pressman told Mother she ought to be proud of Dad. Dad struggled to his feet then, pale but smiling. The pressman shook hands with him, and in no time Dad was laughing and joking over the operation. A pleased look was in Mother's face; happiness filled the home again, and we grew quite fond of that pressman—he was so jolly and affable, and made himself so much at home, Mother said.
"Now, sit over, and we'll have supper," said Dad, proud of having some fried steak to offer the visitors. We had killed a cow the evening before—one that was always getting bogged in the dam and taking up much of Dad's time dragging her out and cutting greenstuff to keep her alive. The visitors enjoyed her. The pressman wanted salt. None was on the table. Dad told Joe to run and get some—to be quick. Joe went out, but in a while returned. He stood at the door with the hammer in his hand and said:
"Did you shift the r-r-r-rock-salt from where S-Spotty was lickin' it this evenin', Dave?"
Dave reached for the bread.
"Don't bother—don't bother about it," said the pressman. "Sit down, youngster, and finish your supper."
"No bother at all," Dad said; but Joe sat down, and Dad scowled at him.
Then Dad got talking about wheat and wallabies—when, all at once, the pressman gave a jump that rattled the things on the table.
"Oh-h-h!...I'VE got it now!" he said, dropping his knife and fork and clapping his hands over his mouth. "Ooh!"
We looked at him. "Got what?" Dad asked, a gleam of satisfaction appearing in his eyes.
"The toothache!—the d——d toothache!...Oh-h!"
"Ha! ha! Hoo! hoo! hoo!" Dad roared. In fact, we all roared—all but the pressman. "OH-H!" he said, and went to the fire. Dad laughed some more.
We ate on. The pressman continued to moan.
Dad turned on his seat. "What paper, mister, do you say you come from?"
"Well, let me see; I'll have in altogether, I daresay, this year, about thirty-five acres of wheat—I suppose as good a wheat——"
"Damn the wheat!...OOH!"
"Eh!" said Dad, "why, I never thought toothache was THET bad! You reminds me of this old cow we be eatin'. SHE moaned just like thet all the time she was layin' in the gully, afore I knocked 'er on the head."
Canty, the storekeeper, looked up quickly, and the pressman looked round slowly—both at Dad.
"Here," continued Dad—"let's have a look at yer tooth, old man!"
The pressman rose. His face was flushed and wild-looking. "Come on out of this—for God's sake!" he said to Canty—"if you're ready."
"What," said Dad, hospitably, "y're not going, surely!" But they were. "Well, then—thirty-five acres of wheat, I have, and" (putting his head out the door and calling after them) "NEXT year—next year, all being well, please God, I'll have SIXTY!"
A Lady at Shingle Hut.
Miss Ribbone had just arrived.
She was the mistress of the local school, and had come to board with us a month. The parents of the score of more of youngsters attending the school had arranged to accommodate her, month about, and it was our turn. And did n't Mother just load us up how we were to behave—particularly Joe.
Dad lumbered in the usual log for the fire, and we all helped him throw it on—all except the schoolmistress. Poor thing! She would have injured her long, miserable, putty-looking fingers! Such a contrast between her and Sal! Then we sat down to supper—that old familiar repast, hot meat and pumpkin.
Somehow we did n't feel quite at home; but Dad got on well. He talked away learnedly to Miss Ribbone about everything. Told her, without swearing once, how, when at school in the old country, he fought the schoolmaster and leathered him well. A pure lie, but an old favourite of Dad's, and one that never failed to make Joe laugh. He laughed now. And such a laugh!—a loud, mirthless, merciless noise. No one else joined in, though Miss Ribbone smiled a little. When Joe recovered he held out his plate.
"More pumpkin, Dad."
"If—what, sir?" Dad was prompting him in manners.
"IF?" and Joe laughed again. "Who said 'if'?—I never."
Just then Miss Ribbone sprang to her feet, knocking over the box she had been sitting on, and stood for a time as though she had seen a ghost. We stared at her. "Oh," she murmured at last, "it was the dog! It gave me such a fright!"
Mother sympathised with her and seated her again, and Dad fixed his eye on Joe.
"Did n't I tell you," he said, "to keep that useless damned mongrel of a dog outside the house altogether—eh?—did n't I? Go this moment and tie the brute up, you vagabond!"
"I did tie him up, but he chewed the greenhide."
"Be off with you, you—" (Dad coughed suddenly and scattered fragments of meat and munched pumpkin about the table) "at once, and do as I tell you, you——"
"That'll do, Father—that'll do," Mother said gently, and Joe took Stump out to the barn and kicked him, and hit him against the corn-sheller, and threatened to put him through it if he did n't stop squealing.
He was a small dog, a dog that was always on the watch—for meat; a shrewd, intelligent beast that never barked at anyone until he got inside and well under the bed. Anyway, he had taken a fancy to Miss Ribbone's stocking, which had fallen down while he was lying under the table, and commenced to worry it. Then he discovered she had a calf, and started to eat THAT. She did n't tell US though—she told Mrs. Macpherson, who imparted the secret to mother. I suppose Stump did n't understand stockings, because neither Mother nor Sal ever wore any, except to a picnic or somebody's funeral; and that was very seldom. The Creek was n't much of a place for sport.
"I hope as you'll be comfortable, my dear," Mother observed as she showed the young lady the back-room where she was to sleep. "It ain't s' nice as we should like to have it f' y'; we had n't enough spare bags to line it all with, but the cracks is pretty well stuffed up with husks an' one thing an' 'nother, and I don't think you'll find any wind kin get in. Here's a bear-skin f' your feet, an' I've nailed a bag up so no one kin see-in in the morning. S' now, I think you'll be pretty snug."
The schoolmistress cast a distressed look at the waving bag-door and said:
"Th-h-ank you-very much."
What a voice! I've heard kittens that had n't their eyes open make a fiercer noise.
Mother must have put all the blessed blankets in the house on the school-teacher's bed. I don't know what she had on her own, but we only had the old bag-quilt and a stack of old skirts, and other remnants of the family wardrobe, on ours. In the middle of the night, the whole confounded pile of them rolled off, and we nearly froze. Do what we boys would—tie ourselves in knots and coil into each other like ropes—we could n't get warm. We sat up in the bed in turns, and glared into the darkness towards the schoolmistress's room, which was n't more than three yards away; then we would lie back again and shiver. We were having a time. But at last we heard a noise from the young lady's room. We listened—all we knew. Miss Ribbone was up and dressing. We could hear her teeth chattering and her knees knocking together. Then we heard her sneak back to bed again and felt disappointed and colder than ever, for we had hoped she was getting up early, and would n't want the bed any longer that night. Then we too crawled out and dressed and tried it that way.
In answer to Mother at breakfast, next morning, Miss Ribbone said she had "slept very well indeed."
We did n't say anything.
She was n't much of an eater. School-teachers are n't as a rule. They pick, and paw, and fiddle round a meal in a way that gives a healthy-appetited person the jim-jams. She did n't touch the fried pumpkin. And the way she sat there at the table in her watch-chain and ribbons made poor old Dave, who sat opposite her in a ragged shirt without a shirt-button, feel quite miserable and awkward.
For a whole week she did n't take anything but bread and tea—though there was always plenty good pumpkin and all that. Mother used to speak to Dad about it, and wonder if she ate the little pumpkin-tarts she put up for her lunch. Dad could n't understand anyone not eating pumpkin, and said HE'D tackle GRASS before he'd starve.
"And did ever y' see such a object?" Mother went on. "The hands an' arms on her! Dear me! Why, I do believe if our Sal was to give her one squeeze she'd kill her. Oh, but the finery and clothes! Y' never see the like! Just look at her!" And Dad, the great oaf, with Joe at his heels, followed her into the young lady's bedroom.
"Look at that!" said Mother, pointing to a couple of dresses hanging on a nail—"she wears THEM on week-days, no less; and here" (raising the lid of a trunk and exposing a pile of clean and neatly-folded clothing that might have been anything, and drawing the articles forth one by one)—"look at them! There's that—and that—and this—and——"
"I say, what's this, Mother?" interrupted Joe, holding up something he had discovered.
"Don't bother me, boy, it's her tooth-brush," and Mother pitched the clothes back into the trunk and glared round. Meanwhile, Joe was hard at his teeth with the brush.
"Oh, here!" and she dived at the bed and drew a night-gown from beneath the pillow, unfolded it, and held it up by the neck for inspection.
Dad, with his huge, ungainly, hairy paws behind him, stood mute, like the great pitiful elephant he was, and looked at the tucks and the rest—stupidly. "Where before did y'ever see such tucks and frills and lace on a night-shirt? Why, you'd think 't were for goin' to picnics in, 'stead o' goin' to bed with. Here, too! here's a pair of brand new stays, besides the ones she's on her back. Clothes!—she's nothin' else but clothes."
Then they came out, and Joe began to spit and said he thought there must have been something on that brush.
Miss Ribbone did n't stay the full month—she left at the end of the second week; and Mother often used to wonder afterwards why the creature never came to see us.
The Man with the Bear-Skin Cap.
One evening a raggedly-dressed man, with a swag on his back, a bear-skin cap on his head, and a sheath-knife in his belt, came to our place and took possession of the barn. Dad ordered him off. The man offered to fight Dad for the barn. Dad ran in and got the gun. Then the man picked up his swag and went away. The incident caused much talk for a few days, but we soon forgot all about it; and the man with the bear-skin cap passed from our minds.
Church service was to be held at our selection. It was the first occasion, in fact, that the Gospel had come to disturb the contentedly irreligious mind of our neighbourhood. Service was to open at 3 p.m.; at break-of-day we had begun to get ready.
Nothing but bustle and hurry. Buttons to be sewn on Dave's shirt; Dad's pants—washed the night before and left on the clothes-line all night to bleach—lost; Little Bill's to be patched up generally; Mother trotting out to the clothes-line every minute to see if Joe's coat was dry. And, what was unusual, Dave, the easy-going, took a notion to spruce himself up. He wandered restlessly from one room to another, robed in a white shirt which was n't starched or ironed, trying hard to fix a collar to it. He had n't worn the turn-out for a couple of years, and, of course, had grown out of it, but this did n't seem to strike him. He tugged and fumbled till he lost patience; then he sat on the bed and railed at the women, and wished that the shirt and the collar, and the church-service and the parson, were in Heaven. Mother offered to fasten the collar, but when she took hold of it—forgetting that her hands were covered with dough and things—Dave flew clean off the handle! And when Sal advised him to wear his coloured shirt, same as Dad was going to do, and reminded him that Mary Anderson might n't come at all, he aimed a pillow at her and knocked Little Bill under the table, and scattered husks all over the floor. Then he fled to the barn and refused dinner.
Mid-day, and Dad's pants not found. We searched inside and outside and round about the pig-sty, and the hay-stack, and the cow-yard; and eyed the cows, and the pet kangaroo, and the draught-horses with suspicion; but saw nothing of the pants. Dad was angry, but had to make the most of an old pair of Dave's through the legs of which Dad thrust himself a lot too far. Mother and Sal said he looked well enough in them, but laughed when he went outside.
The people commenced to arrive on horseback and in drays. The women went on to the verandah with their babies; the men hung round outside and waited. Some sat under the peach-tree and nibbled sticks and killed green-heads; others leant against the fence; while a number gathered round the pig-sty and talked about curing bacon.
The parson came along. All of them stared at him; watched him unsaddle his horse and hunt round for a place to fasten the beast. They regarded the man in the long black coat with awe and wonder.
Everything was now ready, and, when Dad carried in the side-boards of the dray and placed them on boxes for seat accommodation, the clergyman awaited his congregation, which had collected at the back-door. Anderson stepped in; the rest followed, timid-looking, and stood round the room till the clergyman motioned them to sit. They sat and watched him closely.
"We'll now join in singing hymn 499," said the parson, commencing to sing himself. The congregation listened attentively, but did n't join in. The parson jerked his arms encouragingly at them, which only made them the more uneasy. They did n't understand. He snapped his arms harder, as he lifted his voice to the rafters; still they only stared. At last Dad thought he saw through him. He bravely stood up and looked hard at the others. They took the hint and rose clumsily to their feet, but just then the hymn closed, and, as no one seemed to know when to sit again, they remained standing.
They were standing when a loud whip-crack sounded close to the house, and a lusty voice roared:
"Wah Tumbler! Wah Tumbler! Gee back, Brandy! Gee back, you——!——!!——!!!"
People smiled. Then a team of bullocks appeared on the road. The driver drawled, "Wa-a-a-y!" and the team stopped right in front of the door. The driver lifted something weighty from the dray and struggled to the verandah with it and dropped it down. It was a man. The bullock-driver, of course, did n't know that a religious service was being conducted inside, and the chances are he did n't much care. He only saw a number of faces looking out, and talked at them.
"I've a —— cove here," he said, "that I found lying on the —— plain. Gawd knows what's up with him—I don't. A good square feed is about what he wants, I reckon." Then he went back for the man's swag.
Dad, after hesitating, rose and went out. The others followed like a flock of sheep; and the "shepherd" brought up the rear. Church was out. It gathered around the seeming corpse, and stared hard at it. Dad and Dave spoke at the same time.
"Why," they said, "it's the cove with the bear-skin cap!" Sure enough it was. The clergyman knelt down and felt the man's pulse; then went and brought a bottle from his valise—he always carried the bottle, he said, in case of snake-bite and things like that—and poured some of the contents down the man's throat. The colour began to come to the man's face. The clergyman gave him some more, and in a while the man opened his eyes. They rested on Dad, who was bending benignly over him. He seemed to recognise Dad. He stared for some time at him, then said something in a feeble whisper, which the clergyman interpreted—"He wishes you—" looking at Dad—"to get what's in his swag if he dies." Dad nodded, and his thoughts went sadly back to the day he turned the poor devil out of the barn.
They carried the man inside and placed him on the sofa. But soon he took a turn. He sank quickly, and in a few moments he was dead. In a few moments more nearly everyone had gone.
"While you are here," Dad said to the clergyman, in a soft voice, "I'll open the swag." He commenced to unroll it—it was a big blanket—and when he got to the end there were his own trousers—the lost ones, nothing more. Dad's eyes met Mother's; Dave's met Sal's; none of them spoke. But the clergyman drew his own conclusions; and on the following Sunday, at Nobby-Nobby, he preached a stirring sermon on that touching bequest of the man with the bear-skin cap.
Three days to Christmas; and how pleased we were! For months we had looked forward to it. Kate and Sandy, whom we had only seen once since they went on their selection, were to be home. Dave, who was away shearing for the first time, was coming home too. Norah, who had been away for a year teaching school, was home already. Mother said she looked quite the lady, and Sal envied the fashionable cut of her dresses.
Things were in a fair way at Shingle Hut; rain had fallen and everything looked its best. The grass along the headlands was almost as tall as the corn; the Bathurst-burr, the Scotch-thistles, and the "stinking Roger" were taller. Grow! Dad never saw the like. Why, the cultivation was n't large enough to hold the melon and pumpkin vines—they travelled into the horse-paddock and climbed up trees and over logs and stumps, and they would have fastened on the horses only the horses were fat and fresh and often galloped about. And the stock! Blest if the old cows did n't carry udders like camp-ovens, and had so much milk that one could track them everywhere they went—they leaked so. The old plough-horses, too—only a few months before dug out of the dam with a spade, and slung up between heaven and earth for a week, and fed and prayed for regularly by Dad—actually bolted one day with the dray because Joe rattled a dish of corn behind them. Even the pet kangaroo was nearly jumping out of its skin; and it took the big black "goanna" that used to come after eggs all its time to beat Dad from the barn to the nearest tree, so fat was it. And such a season for butterflies and grasshoppers, and grubs and snakes, and native bears! Given an ass, an elephant, and an empty wine-bottle or two, and one might have thought Noah's ark had been emptied at our selection.
Two days to Christmas. The sun getting low. An old cow and a heifer in the stock-yard. Dad in, admiring them; Mother and Sal squinting through the rails; little Bill perched on one of the round posts, nursing the steel and a long knife; Joe running hard from the barn with a plough-rein.
Dad was wondering which beast to kill, and expressed a preference for the heifer. Mother said, "No, kill the cow." Dad inspected the cow again, and shook his head.
"Well, if you don't she'll only die, if the winter's a hard one; then you'll have neither." That settled it. Dad took the rope from Joe, who arrived aglow with heat and excitement, and fixed a running noose on one end of it. Then—
"Hunt 'em round!" he cried.
Joe threw his hat at them, and chased them round and round the yard. Dad turned slowly in the centre, like a ring-master, his eye on the cow; a coil of rope was in this left hand, and with the right he measuredly swung the loop over and over his head for some time. At last the cow gave him a chance at her horns, and he let fly. The rope whizzed across the yard, caught little Bill round the neck, and brought him down off the post. Dad could hardly believe it. He first stared at Bill as he rolled in the yard, then at the cow. Mother wished to know if he wanted to kill the boy, and Joe giggled and, with a deal of courage, assured Dad it was "a fine shot." The cow and the heifer ran into a corner, and switched their tails, and raked skin and hair off each other with their horns.
"What do you want to be always stuck in the road for?" Dad growled, taking the rope off little Bill's neck. "Go away from here altogether!" Little Bill went away; so did Mother and Sal—until Dad had roped the cow, which was n't before he twice lassoed the heifer—once by the fore-leg and once round the flanks. The cow thereupon carried a panel of the yard away, and got out and careered down the lane, bucking and bellowing till all the cattle of the country gathered about her.
Dad's blood was up. He was hanging on to the rope, his heels ploughing the dust, and the cow pulling him about as she liked. The sun was setting; a beautiful sunset, too, and Mother and Sal were admiring it.
"Did y' never see th' blasted sun go—go down be——" Dad did n't finish. He feet slid under a rail, causing him to relax his grip of the rope and sprawl in the dust. But when he rose!
"Are y' going t' stand staring there all night?" They were beside the rails in an instant, took the end of the rope which he passed to them, put it once round the gallows-post, and pulled-pulled like sailors. Dad hung on close to the cow's head, while Joe kicked her with his bare foot and screwed her tail.
"Steady!" said Dad, "that'll about do." Then, turning to the women as he mounted a rail and held the axe above the cow's head: "Hang on there now!" They closed their eyes and sat back. The cow was very patient. Dad extended himself for a great effort, but hesitated. Joe called out: "L-l-ook out th' axe dud-dud-don't fly and gug-gug-get me, Dad!" Dad glanced quickly at it, and took aim again. Down it came, whish! But the cow moved, and he only grazed her cheek. She bellowed and pulled back, and Mother and Sal groaned and let the rope go. The cow swung round and charged Joe, who was standing with his mouth open. But only a charge of shot could catch Joe; he mounted the rails like a cat and shook his hat at the beast below.
After Dad had nearly brained her with a rail the cow was dragged to the post again; and this time Dad made no mistake. Down she dropped, and, before she could give her last kick, all of us entered the yard and approached her boldly. Dad danced about excitedly, asking for the long knife. Nobody knew where it was. "DAMN it, where is it?" he cried, impatiently. Everyone flew round in search of it but Joe. HE was curious to know if the cow was in milk. Dad noticed him; sprang upon him; seized him by the shirt collar and swung him round and trailed him through the yard, saying: "Find me th' knife; d' y' HEAR?" It seemed to sharpen Joe's memory, for he suddenly remembered having stuck it in one of the rails.
Dad bled the beast, but it was late before he had it skinned and dressed. When the carcase was hoisted to the gallows—and it seemed gruesome enough as it hung there in the pallid light of the moon, with the night birds dismally wailing like mourners from the lonely trees—we went home and had supper.
Christmas Eve. Mother and Sal had just finished papering the walls, and we were busy decorating the place with green boughs, when Sandy and Kate, in their best clothes—Kate seated behind a well-filled pillow-slip strapped on the front of her saddle; Sandy with the baby in front of him—came jogging along the lane. There was commotion! Everything was thrown aside to receive them. They were surrounded at the slip-rails, and when they got down—talk about kissing! Dad was the only one who escaped. When the hugging commenced he poked his head under the flap of Kate's saddle and commenced unbuckling the girth. Dad had been at such receptions before. But Sandy took it all meekly. And the baby! (the dear little thing) they scrimmaged about it, and mugged it, and fought for possession of it until Sandy became alarmed and asked them to "Mind!"
Inside they sat and drank tea and talked about things that had happened and things that had n't happened. Then they got back to the baby and disagreed on the question of family likeness. Kate thought the youngster was the dead image of Sandy about the mouth and eyes. Sal said it had Dad's nose; while Mother was reminded of her dear old grandmother every time the infant smiled. Joe ventured to think it resembled Paddy Maloney far more than it did Sandy, and was told to run away and put the calves in. The child was n't yet christened, and the rest of the evening was spent selecting a name for it. Almost every appellation under the sun was suggested and promptly rejected. They could n't hit on a suitable one, and Kate would n't have anything that was n't nice, till at last Dad thought of one that pleased everybody—"Jim!"
After supper, Kate started playing the concertina, and the Andersons and Maloneys and several others dropped in. Dad was pleased to see them; he wished them all a merry Christmas, and they wished him the same and many of them. Then the table was put outside, and the room cleared for a dance. The young people took the floor and waltzed, I dare say, for miles—their heads as they whirled around tossing the green bushes that dangled from the rafters; while the old people, with beaming faces, sat admiring them, and swaying their heads about and beating time to the music by patting the floor with their feet. Someone called out "Faster!" Kate gave it faster. Then to see them and to hear the rattle of the boots upon the floor! You'd think they were being carried away in a whirlwind. All but Sal and Paddy Maloney gave up and leant against the wall, and puffed and mopped their faces and their necks with their pocket-handkerchiefs.
Faster still went the music; faster whirled Sal and Paddy Maloney. And Paddy was on his mettle. He was lifting Sal off her feet. But Kate was showing signs of distress. She leaned forward, jerked her head about, and tugged desperately at the concertina till both handles left it. That ended the tussle; and Paddy spread himself on the floor, his back to the wall, his legs extending to the centre of the room, his chin on his chest, and rested.
Then enjoyment at high tide; another dance proposed; Sal trying hard to persuade Dad to take Mother or Mrs. Maloney up; Dad saying "Tut, tut, tut!"—when in popped Dave, and stood near the door. He had n't changed his clothes, and was grease from top to toe. A saddle-strap was in one hand, his Sunday clothes, tied up in a handkerchief, in the other, and his presence made the room smell just like a woolshed.
"Hello, Dave!" shouted everyone. He said "Well!" and dropped his hat in a corner. No fuss, no kissing, no nothing about Dave. Mother asked if he did n't see Kate and Sandy (both were smiling across the room at him), and he said "Yairs"; then went out to have a wash.
All night they danced—until the cocks crew—until the darkness gave way to the dawn—until the fowls left the roost and came round the door—until it was Christmas Day!