On Our Selection/Chapter 17
DAD used to say that Shingle Hut was the finest selection on Darling Downs; but we never could see anything fine about it—except the weather in drought time, or Dad's old saddle mare. She was very fine. The house was built in a gully so that the bailiffs (I suppose) or the blacks—who were mostly dead—could n't locate it. An old wire-fence, slanting all directions, staggered past the front door. At the rear, its foot almost in the back door, sloped a barren ridge, formerly a squatter's sheep-yard. For the rest there were sky, wallaby-scrub, gum-trees, and some acres of cultivation. But Dad must have seen something in it, or he would n't have stood feasting his eyes on the wooded waste after he had knocked off work of an evening. In all his wanderings—and Dad had been almost everywhere; swimming flooded creeks and rivers, humping his swag from one end of Australia to the other; at all games going except bank-managing and bushranging—he had seen no place timbered like Shingle Hut.
"Why," he used to say, "it's a fortune in itself. Hold on till the country gets populated, and firewood is scarce, there'll be money in it then—mark my words!"
Poor Dad! I wonder how long; he expected to live?
At the back of Shingle Hut was a tract of Government land—mostly mountains—marked on the map as the Great Dividing Range. Splendid country, Dad considered it—beautiful country—and part of a grand scheme he had in his head. I defy you to find a man more full of schemes than Dad was.
The day had been hot. Inside, the mosquitoes were bad; and, after supper, Dad and Dave were outside, lying on some bags. They had been grubbing that day; and were tired. The night was nearly dark. Dad lay upon his back, watching the stars; Dave upon his stomach, his head resting on his arms. Both silent. One of the draught-horses cropped the couch-grass round about them. Now and again a flyingfox circled noiselessly overhead, and "Mopoke!—Mo-poke!" came dismally from the ridge and from out the lonely-looking gully. A star fell, lighting up a portion of the sky, but Dad did not remark it. In a while he said:
"How old are you, Dave?" Dave made a mental calculation before answering.
"S'pose I must be eighteen now . . . Why?"
"I've been thinking of that land at the back—if we had that I believe we could make money."
"Yairs—if we had."
"Well, I mean to have it, and that before very long."
Dave raised his head, and looked towards Dad.
ft There 's four of you old enough now to take up land, and where could you get better country than that out there for cattle? "Why" (turning on his side and facing Dave) "with a thousand acres of that stocked with cattle and this kept under cultivation we'd make money—we'd be rich in a very few years."
Dave raised himself on his elbow.
"Yairs—with cattle" he said.
"Just so" (Dad sat up with enthusiasm), "but to get the land is the first thing, and that's easy enough only" (lowering his voice) "it'll have to be done quietly and without letting everyone 'round know, we're going in for it." ("Oh! yairs,o' course," from Dave.) "Then" (and Dad lifted his voice and leaned over) "run a couple of wires round it, put every cow we've here on it straight away; get another one or two when the barley's sold, and let them breed."
"'Bout how many 'd that be t' start 'n?"
"Well, eight good cows at the least—plenty, too. It's simply wonderful how cattle breed if they're let alone. Look at Murphy, for instance. Started on that place with two young heifers—those two old red cows that you see knocking about now. They're the mothers of all his cattle. Anderson just the same. . . . Why, God bless my soul! we would have a better start than any one of them ever had—by a long way."
Dave sat up. He began to share Dad's enthusiasm.
"Once get it stocked, and all that is to be done then is simply to look after the fence, ride about among the cattle every day, see they're right, brand the calves, and every year muster the mob, draft out the fat bullocks, whip them into town, and get our seven and eight pounds a head for them."
"That'd suit me down to the ground, ridin' about after cattle," Dave said.
"Yes, get our seven and eight pounds, maybe nine or ten pounds a-piece. And could ever we do that pottering about on this place?" Dad leaned over further and pressed Dave's knee with his hand.
"Mind you!" (in a very confidential tone) "I'm not at all satisfied the way we're dragging along here. It's utter nonsense, and, to speak the truth" (lowering his voice again) "I've been sick of the whole damn thing long ago."
A minute or two passed.
"It would n't matter," Dad continued, "if there was no way of doing better; but there is. The thing only requires to be done, and why not do it?" He paused for an answer.
"Well," Dave said, "let us commence it straight off—t'morror. It's the life that'd suit me."
"Of course it would . . . and there's money in it . . . no mistake about it!"
A few minutes passed. Then they went inside, and Dad took Mother into his confidence, and they sat up half the night discussing the scheme.
Twelve months later. The storekeeper was at the house wanting to see Dad. Dad wasn't at home. He never was when the storekeeper came; he generally contrived to be away, up the paddock somewhere or amongst the corn—if any was growing. The storekeeper waited an hour or so, but Dad did n't turn up. When he was gone, though, Dad walked in and asked Mother what he had said. Mother was seated on the sofa, troubled-looking.
"He must be paid by next week," she said, bursting into tears, "or the place 'll be sold over our heads."
Dad stood with his back to the fire-place, his hands locked behind him, watching the flies swarming on the table.
Dave came in. He understood the situation at a glance. The scene was not new to him. He sat down, leant forward, picked a straw off the floor and twisted it round and round his finger, reflecting.
Little Bill put his head on Mother's lap, and asked for a piece of bread. . . . He asked a second time.
"There is no bread, child," she said.
"But me wants some, mumma."
Dad went outside, and Dave followed. They sat on their heels, their backs to the barn, thoughtfully studying the earth.
"It 's the same thing"—Dad said, reproachfully—"from one year's end to the other . . . alwuz a bill!"
"Thought last year we 'd be over all this by now!" from Dave.
"So we could . . . can now. ... It only wants that land to be taken up; and, as I 've said often and often, these cows taken "
Dad caught sight of the storekeeper coming back, and ran into the barn.
Six months later. Dinner about ready. "Take up a thousand acres," Dad was saying; "take it up—He was interrupted by a visitor.
"Are you Mister Rudd?" Dad said he was.
"Well, er—I've fi. fa. against y'."
Dad did n't understand.
The Sheriff's officer drew a document from his inside breast-pocket and proceeded to read:
"To Mister James Williams, my bailiff. Greeting: By virtue of Her Majesty's writ of fieri facias, to me directed, I command you that of the goods and chattels, money, banknote or notes or other property of Murtagh Joseph Rudd, of Shingle Hut, in my bailiwick, you cause to be made the sum of £40 10s., with interest thereon," &c.
Then the bailiff's man rounded up the cows and the horses, and Dad and the lot of us leant against the fence and in sadness watched Polly and old Poley and the rest for the last time pass out the slip-rails.
"That puts an end to the land business!" Dave said gloomily.
But Dad never spoke.