On Our Selection/Chapter 13
The Summer Old Bob Died.
IT was a real scorcher. A soft, sweltering summer's day. The air quivered; the heat drove the fowls under the dray and sent the old dog to sleep upon the floor inside the house. The iron on the skillion creaked and sweated—so did Dad and Dave down the paddock, grubbing—grubbing in loOdeg. of sunshine. They were clearing a piece of new land—a heavily-timbered box-tree flat. They had been at it a fortnight, and if any music was in the ring of the axe or the rattle of the pick when commencing, there was none now.
Dad wished to be cheerful and complacent. He said (putting the pick down and dragging his flannel off to wring it): "It's a good thing to sweat well." Dave did n't say anything. I don't know what he thought, but he looked up at Dad—just looked up at him—while the perspiration filled his eyes and ran down over his nose like rain off a shingle; then he hitched up his pants and "wired in" again.
Dave was a philosopher. He worked away until the axe flew off the handle with a ring and a bound, and might have been lost in the long grass for ever only Dad stopped it with his shin. I fancy he did n't mean to stop it when I think how he jumped—it was the only piece of excitement there had been the whole of that relentlessly solemn fortnight. Dad got vexed—he was in a hurry with the grubbing—and said he never could get anything done without something going wrong. Dave was n't sorry the axe came off—he knew it meant half-an-hour in the shade fixing it on again.
"Anyway," Dad went on, "we'll go to dinner now."
On the way to the house he several times looked at the sky—that cloudless, burning sky—and said—to no one in particular, "I wish to God it would rain!" It sounded like an aggravated prayer. Dave did n't speak, and I don't think Dad expected he would.
Joe was the last to sit down to dinner, and he came in steaming hot. He had chased out of sight a cow that had poked into the cultivation. Joe mostly went about with green bushes in his hat, to keep his head cool, and a few gum-leaves were now sticking in his moist and matted hair.
"I put her out, Dad!" he said, casting an eager glare at everything on the table. "She tried to jump and got stuck on the fence, and broke it all down. On'y I could n't get anything, I'd er broke 'er head—there was n't a thing, on'y dead cornstalks and cow-dung about." Then he lunged his fork desperately at a blowfly that persistently hovered about his plate, and commenced.
Joe had a healthy appetite. He had charged his mouth with a load of cold meat, when his jaws ceased work, and, opening his mouth as though he were sleepy, he leaned forward and calmly returned it all to the plate. Dad got suspicious, and asked Joe what was up; but Joe only wiped his mouth, looked sideways at his plate, and pushed it away.
All of us stopped eating then, and stared at each other. Mother said, "Well, I—I wrapped a cloth round it so nothing could get in, and put it in the safe—I don't know where on earth to put the meat, I'm sure; if I put it in a bag and hang it up that thief of a dog gets it."
"Yes," Dad observed, "I believe he'd stick his nose into hell itself, Ellen, if he thought there was a bone there—and there ought to be lots by this time." Then he turned over the remains of that cold meat, and, considering we had all witnessed the last kick of the slaughtered beast, it was surprising what animation this part of him yet retained. In vain did Dad explore for a really dead piece—there was life in all of it.
Joe wasn't satisfied. He said he knew where there was a lot of eggs, and disappeared down the yard. Eggs were not plentiful on our selection, because we too often had to eat the hens when there was no meat—three or four were as many as we ever saw at one time. So on this day, when Joe appeared with a hatful, there was excitement. He felt himself a hero. We thought him a little saviour.
"My!" said Mother, "where did you get all those?"
"Get 'em! I've had these planted for three munce—they're a nest I found long ago; I thought I would n't say anythink till we really wanted 'em."
Just then one of the eggs fell out of the hat and went off "pop" on the floor.
Dave nearly upset the table, he rose so suddenly; and covering his nose with one hand he made for the door; then he scowled back over his shoulder at Joe. He utterly scorned his brother Joe. All of us deserted the table except Dad—he stuck to his place manfully; it took a lot to shift him.
Joe must have had a fine nerve. "That's on'y one bad 'n'," he said, taking the rest to the fireplace where the kettle stood. Then Dad, who had remained calm and majestic, broke out. "Damn y', boy!" he yelled, "take th' awful things outside—you tinker!" Joe took them out and tried them all, but I forget if he found a good one.
Dad peered into the almost-empty water-cask and again muttered a short prayer for rain. He decided to do no more grubbing that day, but to run wire around the new land instead. The posts had been in the ground some time, and were bored. Dave and Sarah bored them. Sarah was as good as any man—so Dad reckoned. She could turn her hand to anything, from sewing a shirt to sinking a post-hole. She could give Dave inches in arm-measurements, and talk about a leg! She had a leg—a beauty! It was as thick at the ankle as Dad's was at the thigh, nearly.
Anyone who would know what real amusement is should try wiring posts. What was to have been the top wire (the No. 8 stuff) Dad commenced to put in the bottom holes, and we ran it through some twelve or fifteen posts before he saw the mistake—then we dragged it out slowly and savagely; Dad swearing adequately all the time.
At last everything went splendidly. We dragged the wire through panel after panel, and at intervals Dad would examine the blistering sky for signs of rain. Once when he looked up a red bullock was reaching for his waistcoat, which hung on a branch of a low tree. Dad sang out. The bullock poked out his tongue and reached higher. Then Dad told Joe to run. Joe ran—so did the bullock, but faster, and with the waistcoat that once was a part of Mother's shawl half-way down his throat. Had the shreds and ribbons that dangled to it been a little longer, he might have trodden on them and pulled it back, but he did n't. Joe deemed it his duty to follow that red bullock till it dropped the waistcoat, so he hammered along full split behind. Dad and Dave stood watching until pursued and pursuer vanished down the gully; then Dad said something about Joe being a fool, and they pulled at the wire again. They were nearing a corner post, and Dad was hauling the wire through the last panel, when there came the devil's own noise of galloping hoofs. Fifty or more cattle came careering along straight for the fence, bellowing and kicking up their heels in the air, as cattle do sometimes after a shower of rain. Joe was behind them—considerably—still at full speed and yelping like a dog. Joe loved excitement.
For weeks those cattle had been accustomed to go in and out between the posts; and they did n't seem to have any thoughts of wire as they bounded along. Dave stood with gaping mouth. Dad groaned, and the wire's-end he was holding in his hand flew up with a whiz and took a scrap of his ear away. The cattle got mixed up in the wires. Some toppled over; some were caught by the legs; some by the horns. They dragged the wire twenty and thirty yards away, twisted it round logs, and left a lot of the posts pointing to sunset.
Oh, Dad's language then! He swung his arms about and foamed at the mouth. Dave edged away from him. Joe came up waving triumphantly a chewed piece of the waistcoat. "D-d-did it g-give them a buster, Dad?" he said, the sweat running over his face as though a spring had broken out on top of his head. Dad jumped a log and tried to unbuckle his strap and reach for Joe at the same time, but Joe fled.
That threw a painful pall over everything. Dad declared he was sick and tired of the whole thing, and would n't do another hand's-turn. Dave meditated and walked along the fence, plucking off scraps of skin and hair that here and there clung to the bent and battered wire.
We had just finished supper when old Bob Wren, a bachelor who farmed about two miles from us, arrived. He used to come over every mail-night and bring his newspaper with him. Bob could n't read a word, so he always got Dad to spell over the paper to him. We did n't take a newspaper.
Bob said there were clouds gathering behind Flat Top when he came in, and Dad went out and looked, and for the fiftieth time that day prayed in his own way for rain. Then he took the paper, and we gathered at the table to listen. "Hello," he commenced, "this is M'Doolan's paper you've got, Bob."
Bob rather thought it was n't.
"Yes, yes, man, it is," Dad put in; "see, it's addressed to him."
Bob leaned over and looked at the address, and said: "No, no, that's mine; it always comes like that." Dad laughed. We all laughed. He opened it, anyway. He had n't read for five minutes when the light flickered nearly out. Sarah reckoned the oil was about done, and poured water in the lamp to raise the kerosene to the wick, but that did n't last long, and, as there was no fat in the house, Dad squatted on the floor and read by the firelight.
He plodded through the paper tediously from end to end, reading the murders and robberies a second time. The clouds that old Bob said were gathering when he came in were now developing to a storm, for the wind began to rise, and the giant iron-bark tree that grew close behind the house swayed and creaked weirdly, and threw out those strange sobs and moans that on wild nights bring terror to the hearts of bush children. A glimmer of lightning appeared through the cracks in the slabs. Old Bob said he would go before it came on, and started into the inky darkness.
"It's coming!" Dad said, as he shut the door and put the peg in after seeing old Bob out. And it came—in no time. A fierce wind struck the house. Then a vivid flash of lightning lit up every crack and hole, and a clap of thunder followed that nearly shook the place down.
Dad ran to the back door and put his shoulder against it; Dave stood to the front one; and Sarah sat on the sofa with her arms around Mother, telling her not to be afraid. The wind blew furiously—its one aim seemed the shifting of the house. Gust after gust struck the walls and left them quivering. The children screamed. Dad called and shouted, but no one could catch a word he said. Then there was one tremendous crack—we understood it—the iron-bark tree had gone over. At last, the shingled roof commenced to give. Several times the ends rose (and our hair too) and fell back into place again with a clap. Then it went clean away in one piece, with a rip like splitting a ribbon, and there we stood, affrighted and shelterless, inside the walls. Then the wind went down and it rained—rained on us all night.
Next morning Joe had been to the new fence for the axe for Dad, and was off again as fast as he could run, when he remembered something and called out, "Dad, old B-B-Bob 's just over there, lyin' down in the gully."
Dad started up. "It's 'im all right—I w-w-would n'ter noticed, on'y Prince's-s-smelt him."
"Quick and show me where!" Dad said.
Joe showed him.
"My God!" and Dad stood and stared. Old Bob it was—dead. Dead as Moses.
"Poor old Bob!" Dad said. "Poor—old—fellow!" Joe asked what could have killed him? "Poor—old—Bob!"
Dave brought the dray, and we took him to the house—or what remained of it.
Dad could n't make out the cause of death—perhaps it was lightning. He held a post-mortem, and, after thinking hard for a long while, told Mother he was certain, way, that old Bob would never get up again. It was a change to have a dead man about the place, and we were very pleased to be first to tell anyone who did n't know the news about old Bob.
We planted him on his own selection beneath a gum-tree, where for years and years a family of jackasses nightly roosted, Dad remarking: "As there might be a chance of his hearin', it'll be company for the poor old cove."