Our Selection (Steele Rudd)

Steele Rudd

Starting the Selection.

 

It’s twenty years ago now since we settled on the Creek. Twenty years! I remember well the day we came from Stanthorpe, on Jerome’s dray — eight of us, and all the things — beds, tubs, a bucket, the two cedar chairs with the pine bottoms and backs that Dad put in them, some pint-pots and old Crib. It was a scorching hot day, too — talk about thirst! At every creek we came to we drank till it stopped running. Dad didn’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 wasn’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 weren’t to say anything about it. Joe and I went back that evening and turned over every stone on the ridge, but we didn’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 didn’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 wasn’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 hadn’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 don’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 didn’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 couldn’t be worked-out on a draught-board. I have already said that we hadn’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. Pagina 2 Our First Harvest If there is anything worse than burr-cutting or breaking stones, it’s putting corn in with a hoe. We had just finished. The girls were sowing the last of the grain when Fred Dwyer appeared on the scene. Dad stopped and talked with him while we (Dan, Dave and myself) sat on our hoe-handles, like kangaroos on their tails, and killed flies. Terrible were the flies, particularly when you had sore legs or the blight. Dwyer was a big man with long, brown arms and red, bushy whiskers. “You must find it slow work with a hoe?” he said. “Well-yes-pretty,” replied Dad (just as if he wasn’t quite sure). After a while Dwyer walked over the “cultivation”, and looked at it hard, then scraped a hole with the heel of his boot, spat, and said he didn’t think the corn would ever come up. Dan slid off his perch at this, and Dave let the flies eat his leg nearly off without seeming to feel it; but Dad argued it out. “Orright, orright,” said Dwyer; “I hope it do.” Then Dad went on to speak of places he knew of where they preferred hoes to a plough for putting corn in with; but Dwyer only laughed and shook his head. “D— n him!” Dad muttered, when he had gone; “what rot! WON’T COME UP!” Dan, who was still thinking hard, at last straightened himself up and said HE didn’t think it was any use either. Then Dad lost his temper. “No USE?” he yelled, “you whelp, what do you know about it?” Dan answered quietly: “On’y this, that it’s nothing but tomfoolery, this hoe business.” “How would you do it then?” Dad roared, and Dan hung his head and tried to button his buttonless shirt wrist-band while he thought. “With a plough,” he answered. Something in Dad’s throat prevented him saying what he wished, so he rushed at Dan with the hoe, but — was too slow. Dan slept outside that night. No sooner was the grain sown than it rained. How it rained! for weeks! And in the midst of it all the corn came up — every grain-and proved Dwyer a bad prophet. Dad was in high spirits and promised each of us something — new boots all round. The corn continued to grow — so did our hopes, but a lot faster. Pulling the suckers and “heeling it up” with hoes was but child’s play — we liked it. Our thoughts were all on the boots; ’twas months months since we had pulled on a pair. Every night, in bed, we decided twenty times over whether they would be lace-ups or bluchers, and Dave had a bottle of “goanna” oil ready to keep his soft with. Dad now talked of going up country — as Mother put it, “to keep the wolf from the door”— while the four acres of corn ripened. He went, and returned on the day Tom and Bill were born — twins. Maybe his absence did keep the wolf from the door, but it didn’t keep the dingoes from the fowl-house! Once the corn ripened it didn’t take long to pull it, but Dad had to put on his considering-cap when we came to the question of getting it in. To hump it in bags seemed inevitable till Dwyer asked Dad to give him a hand to put up a milking-yard. Then Dad’s chance came, and he seized it. Dwyer, in return for Dad’s labour, carted in the corn and took it to the railway-station when it was shelled. Yes, when it WAS shelled! We had to shell it with our hands, and what a time we had! For the first half-hour we didn’t mind it at all, and shelled cob after cob as though we liked it; but next day, talk about blisters! we couldn’t close our hands for them, and our faces had to go without a wash for a fortnight. Fifteen bags we got off the four acres, and the storekeeper undertook to sell it. Corn was then at 12 shillings and 14 shillings per bushel, and Dad expected a big cheque. Every day for nearly three weeks he trudged over to the store (five miles) and I went with him. Each time the storekeeper would shake his head and say “No word yet.” Dad couldn’t understand. At last word did come. The storekeeper was busy serving a customer when we went in, so he told Dad to “hold on a bit”. Dad felt very pleased — so did I. The customer left. The storekeeper looked at Dad and twirled a piece of string round his first finger, then said —“Twelve pounds your corn cleared, Mr. Rudd; but, of course” (going to a desk) “there’s that account of yours which I have credited with the amount of the cheque — that brings it down now to just three pound, as you will see by the account.” Dad was speechless, and looked sick. He went home and sat on a block and stared into the fire with his chin resting in his hands, till Mother laid her hand upon his shoulder and asked him kindly what was the matter. Then he drew the storekeeper’s bill from his pocket, and handed it to her, and she too sat down and gazed into the fire. That was OUR first harvest. Pagina 3 Before We Got The Deeds Our selection adjoined a sheep-run on the Darling Downs, and boasted of few and scant improvements, though things had gradually got a little better than when we started. A verandahless four-roomed slab-hut now standing out from a forest of box-trees, a stock-yard, and six acres under barley were the only evidence of settlement. A few horses — not ours — sometimes grazed about; and occasionally a mob of cattle — also not ours — cows with young calves, steers, and an old bull or two, would stroll around, chew the best legs of any trousers that might be hanging on the log reserved as a clothes-line, then leave in the night and be seen no more for months — some of them never. And yet we were always out of meat! Dad was up the country earning a few pounds — the corn drove him up when it didn’t bring what he expected. All we got out of it was a bag of flour — I don’t know what the storekeeper got. Before he left we put in the barley. Somehow, Dad didn’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 wasn’t one that didn’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 didn’t want to lay it on the table at first, but Mother said he wouldn’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 wasn’t often he got any poultry. He tramped on again, and the girls were very glad he didn’t know it was a rat. But Dave wasn’t so sure that he didn’t know a rat from a rooster, and reckoned he hadn’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 didn’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 wasn’t one that fattened on grass. Birds took kindly to her — crows mostly — and she couldn’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 didn’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 don’t know if he was knocked up or if he didn’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 hadn’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 didn’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 wasn’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 wasn’t. We caught her, and Dave pointed to white spots all over the saddle, and said —“Hanged if they haven’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 couldn’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. “Couldn’t y’ find her, Dad?” Dan said, seeing him return without the mare. Dad cleared his throat, but didn’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 didn’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. Pagina 4 When the Wolf was at the Door. There had been a long stretch of dry weather, and we were cleaning out the waterhole. Dad was down the hole shovelling up the dirt; Joe squatted on the brink catching flies and letting them go again without their wings — a favourite amusement of his; while Dan and Dave cut a drain to turn the water that ran off the ridge into the hole — when it rained. Dad was feeling dry, and told Joe to fetch him a drink. Joe said: “See first if this cove can fly with only one wing.” Then he went, but returned and said: “There’s no water in the bucket — Mother used the last drop to boil th’ punkins,” and renewed the fly-catching. Dad tried to spit, and was going to say something when Mother, half-way between the house and the waterhole, cried out that the grass paddock was all on fire. “So it is, Dad!” said Joe, slowly but surely dragging the head off a fly with finger and thumb. Dad scrambled out of the hole and looked. “Good God!” was all he said. How he ran! All of us rushed after him except Joe — he couldn’t run very well, because the day before he had ridden fifteen miles on a poor horse, bare-back. When near the fire Dad stopped running to break a green bush. He hit upon a tough one. Dad was in a hurry. The bush wasn’t. Dad swore and tugged with all his might. Then the bush broke and Dad fell heavily upon his back and swore again. To save the cockatoo fence that was round the cultivation was what was troubling Dad. Right and left we fought the fire with boughs. Hot! It was hellish hot! Whenever there was a lull in the wind we worked. Like a wind-mill Dad’s bough moved — and how he rushed for another when one was used up! Once we had the fire almost under control; but the wind rose again, and away went the flames higher and faster than ever. “It’s no use,” said Dad at last, placing his hand on his head, and throwing down his bough. We did the same, then stood and watched the fence go. After supper we went out again and saw it still burning. Joe asked Dad if he didn’t think it was a splendid sight? Dad didn’t answer him — he didn’t seem conversational that night. We decided to put the fence up again. Dan had sharpened the axe with a broken file, and he and Dad were about to start when Mother asked them what was to be done about flour? She said she had shaken the bag to get enough to make scones for that morning’s breakfast, and unless some was got somewhere there would be no bread for dinner. Dad reflected, while Dan felt the edge on the axe with his thumb. Dad said, “Won’t Missus Dwyer let you have a dishful until we get some?” “No,” Mother answered; “I can’t ask her until we send back what we owe them.” Dad reflected again. “The Andersons, then?” he said. Mother shook her head and asked what good there was it sending to them when they, only that morning, had sent to her for some? “Well, we must do the best we can at present,” Dad answered, “and I’ll go to the store this evening and see what is to be done.” Putting the fence up again in the hurry that Dad was in was the very devil! He felled the saplings — and such saplings!— TREES many of them were — while we, “all of a muck of sweat,” dragged them into line. Dad worked like a horse himself, and expected us to do the same. “Never mind staring about you,” he’d say, if he caught us looking at the sun to see if it were coming dinner-time —“there’s no time to lose if we want to get the fence up and a crop in.” Dan worked nearly as hard as Dad until he dropped the butt-end of a heavy sapling on his foot, which made him hop about on one leg and say that he was sick and tired of the dashed fence. Then he argued with Dad, and declared that it would be far better to put a wire-fence up at once, and be done with it, instead of wasting time over a thing that would only be burnt down again. “How long,” he said, “will it take to get the posts? Not a week,” and he hit the ground disgustedly with a piece of stick he had in his hand. “Confound it!” Dad said, “haven’t you got any sense, boy? What earthly use would a wire-fence be without any wire in it?” Then we knocked off and went to dinner. No one appeared in any humour to talk at the table. Mother sat silently at the end and poured out the tea while Dad, at the head, served the pumpkin and divided what cold meat there was. Mother wouldn’t have any meat — one of us would have to go without if she had taken any. I don’t know if it was on account of Dan arguing with him, or if it was because there was no bread for dinner, that Dad was in a bad temper; anyway, he swore at Joe for coming to the table with dirty hands. Joe cried and said that he couldn’t wash them when Dave, as soon as he had washed his, had thrown the water out. Then Dad scowled at Dave, and Joe passed his plate along for more pumpkin. Dinner was almost over when Dan, still looking hungry, grinned and asked Dave if he wasn’t going to have some BREAD? Whereupon Dad jumped up in a tearing passion. “D— n your insolence!” he said to Dan, “make a jest of it, would you?” “Who’s jestin’?” Dan answered and grinned again. “Go!” said Dad, furiously, pointing to the door, “leave my roof, you thankless dog!” Dan went that night. It was only upon Dad promising faithfully to reduce his account within two months that the storekeeper let us have another bag of flour on credit. And what a change that bag of flour wrought! How cheerful the place became all at once! And how enthusiastically Dad spoke of the farm and the prospects of the coming season! Four months had gone by. The fence had been up some time and ten acres of wheat put in; but there had been no rain, and not a grain had come up, or was likely to. Nothing had been heard of Dan since his departure. Dad spoke about him to Mother. “The scamp!” he said, “to leave me just when I wanted help — after all the years I’ve slaved to feed him and clothe him, see what thanks I get! but, mark my word, he’ll be glad to come back yet.” But Mother would never say anything against Dan. The weather continued dry. The wheat didn’t come up, and Dad became despondent again. The storekeeper called every week and reminded Dad of his promise. “I would give it you willingly,” Dad would say, “if I had it, Mr. Rice; but what can I do? You can’t knock blood out of a stone.” We ran short of tea, and Dad thought to buy more with the money Anderson owed him for some fencing he had done; but when he asked for it, Anderson was very sorry he hadn’t got it just then, but promised to let him have it as soon as he could sell his chaff. When Mother heard Anderson couldn’t pay, she DID cry, and said there wasn’t a bit of sugar in the house, nor enough cotton to mend the children’s bits of clothes. We couldn’t very well go without tea, so Dad showed Mother how to make a new kind. He roasted a slice of bread on the fire till it was like a black coal, then poured the boiling water over it and let it “draw” well. Dad said it had a capital flavour — HE liked it. Dave’s only pair of pants were pretty well worn off him; Joe hadn’t a decent coat for Sunday; Dad himself wore a pair of boots with soles tied on with wire; and Mother fell sick. Dad did all he could — waited on her, and talked hopefully of the fortune which would come to us some day; but once, when talking to Dave, he broke down, and said he didn’t, in the name of the Almighty God, know what he would do! Dave couldn’t say anything — he moped about, too, and home somehow didn’t seem like home at all. When Mother was sick and Dad’s time was mostly taken up nursing her; when there was nothing, scarcely, in the house; when, in fact, the wolf was at the very door;— Dan came home with a pocket full of money and swag full of greasy clothes. How Dad shook him by the hand and welcomed him back! And how Dan talked of “tallies”, “belly-wool”, and “ringers” and implored Dad, over and over again, to go shearing, or rolling up, or branding — ANYTHING rather than work and starve on the selection. That’s fifteen years ago, and Dad is still on the farm. Carico pagina successiva…

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