Father was one of those people that gets shut of a deal of trouble in this world by always sticking to one thing. If he said he'd do this or that he always did it and nothing else. As for turning him, a wild bull half-way down a range was a likelier try-on. So nobody ever bothered him after he'd once opened his mouth. They knew it was so much lost labour. I sometimes thought Aileen was a bit like him in her way of sticking to things. But then she was always right, you see.
So that clinched it. Mother gave in like a wise woman, as she was. The clergyman from Bargo came one day and christened me and Jim—made one job of it. But mother took Aileen herself in the spring cart all the way to the township and had her christened in the chapel, in the middle of the service all right and regular, by Father Roche.
There's good and bad of every sort, and I've met plenty that were no chop of all churches; but if Father Roche, or Father anybody else, had any hand in making mother and Aileen half as good as they were, I'd turn to-morrow, if I ever got out again. I don't suppose it was the religion that made much difference in our case, for Patsey Daly and his three brothers, that lived on the creek higher up, were as much on the cross as men could be, and many a time I've seen them ride to chapel and attend mass, and look as if they'd never seen a 'clearskin' in their lives. Patsey was hanged afterwards for bush-ranging and gold robbery, and he had more than one man's blood to answer for. Now we weren't like that; we never troubled the church one way or the other. We knew we were doing what we oughtn't to do, and scorned to look pious and keep two faces under one hood.
By degrees we all grew older, began to be active and able to do half a man's work. We learned to ride pretty well—at least, that is we could ride a bare-backed horse at full gallop through timber or down a range; could back a colt just caught and have him as quiet as an old cow in a week. We could use the axe and the cross-cut saw, for father dropped that sort of work himself, and made Jim and I do all the rough jobs of mending the fences, getting firewood, milking the cows, and, after a bit, ploughing the bit of flat we kept in cultivation.
Jim and I, when we were fifteen and thirteen—he was bigger for his age than I was, and so near my own strength that I didn't care about touching him—were the smartest lads on the creek, father said—he didn't often praise us, either. We had often ridden over to help at the muster of the large cattle stations that were on the side of the range, and not more than twenty or thirty miles from us.
Some of our young stock used to stray among the squatters' cattle, and we liked attending the muster because there was plenty of galloping about and cutting out, and fun in the men's hut at night, and often a half-crown or so for helping some one away with a big mob of cattle or a lot for the pound. Father didn't go himself, and I used to notice that whenever we came up and said we were Ben Marston's boys both master and super looked rather glum, and then appeared not to think any more about it. I heard the owner of one of these stations say to his managing man, 'Pity, isn't it? fine boys, too.' I didn't understand what they meant. I do now.
We could do a few things besides riding, because, as I told you before, we had been to a bit of a school kept by an old chap that had once seen better days, that lived three miles off, near a little bush township. This village, like most of these places, had a public-house and a blacksmith's shop. That was about all. The publican kept the store, and managed pretty well to get hold of all the money that was made by the people round about, that is of those that were 'good drinking men'. He had half-a-dozen children, and, though he was not up to much, he wasn't that bad that he didn't want his children to have the chance of being better than himself. I've seen a good many crooked people in my day, but very few that, though they'd given themselves up as a bad job, didn't hope a bit that their youngsters mightn't take after them. Curious, isn't it? But it is true, I can tell you. So Lammerby, the publican, though he was a greedy, sly sort of fellow, that bought things he knew were stolen, and lent out money and charged everybody two prices for the things he sold 'em, didn't like the thought of his children growing up like Myall cattle, as he said himself, and so he fished out this old Mr. Howard, that had been a friend or a victim or some kind of pal of his in old times, near Sydney, and got him to come and keep school.
He was a curious man, this Mr. Howard. What he had been or done none of us ever knew, but he spoke up to one of the squatters that said something sharp to him one day in a way that showed us boys that he thought himself as good as he was. And he stood up straight and looked him in the face, till we hardly could think he was the same man that was so bent and shambling and broken-down-looking most times. He used to live in a little hut in the township all by himself. It was just big enough to hold him and us at our lessons. He had his dinner at the inn, along with Mr. and Mrs. Lammerby. She was always kind to him, and made him puddings and things when he was ill. He was pretty often ill, and then he'd hear us our lessons at the bedside, and make a short day of it.
Mostly he drank nothing but tea. He used to smoke a good deal out of a big meerschaum pipe with figures on it that he used to show us when he was in a good humour. But two or three times a year he used to set-to and drink for a week, and then school was left off till he was right. We didn't think much of that. Everybody, almost, that we knew did the same—all the men—nearly all, that is—and some of the women—not mother, though; she wouldn't have touched a drop of wine or spirits to save her life, and never did to her dying day. We just thought of it as if they'd got a touch of fever or sunstroke, or broke a rib or something. They'd get over it in a week or two, and be all right again.
All the same, poor old Mr. Howard wasn't always on the booze, not by any manner of means. He never touched a drop of anything, not even ginger-beer, while he was straight, and he kept us all going from nine o'clock in the morning till three in the afternoon, summer and winter, for more than six years. Then he died, poor old chap—found dead in his bed one morning. Many a basting he gave me and Jim with an old malacca cane he had with a silver knob to it. We were all pretty frightened of him. He'd say to me and Jim and the other boys, 'It's the best chance of making men of yourselves you ever had, if you only knew it. You'll be rich farmers or settlers, perhaps magistrates, one of these days—that is, if you're not hanged. It's you, I mean,' he'd say, pointing to me and Jim and the Dalys; `I believe some of you will be hanged unless you change a good deal. It's cold blood and bad blood that runs in your veins, and you'll come to earn the wages of sin some day. It's a strange thing,' he used to say, as if he was talking to himself, `that the girls are so good, while the boys are delivered over to the Evil One, except a case here and there. Look at Mary Darcy and Jane Lammerby, and my little pet Aileen here. I defy any village in Britain to turn out such girls—plenty of rosy-cheeked gigglers—but the natural refinement and intelligence of these little damsels astonishes me.'
Well, the old man died suddenly, as I said, and we were all very sorry, and the school was broken up. But he had taught us all to write fairly and to keep accounts, to read and spell decently, and to know a little geography. It wasn't a great deal, but what we knew we knew well, and I often think of what he said, now it's too late, we ought to have made better use of it. After school broke up father said Jim and I knew quite as much as was likely to be any good to us, and we must work for our living like other people. We'd always done a pretty fair share of that, and our hands were hard with using the axe and the spade, let alone holding the plough at odd times and harrowing, helping father to kill and brand, and a lot of other things, besides getting up while the stars were in the sky so as to get the cows milked early, before it was time to go to school.
All this time we had lived in a free kind of way—we wanted for nothing. We had plenty of good beef, and a calf now and then. About this time I began to wonder how it was that so many cattle and horses passed through father's hands, and what became of them.
I hadn't lived all my life on Rocky Creek, and among some of the smartest hands in that line that old New South Wales ever bred, without knowing what 'clearskins' and `cross' beasts meant, and being well aware that our brand was often put on a calf that no cow of ours ever suckled. Don't I remember well the first calf I ever helped to put our letters on? I've often wished I'd defied father, then taken my licking, and bolted away from home. It's that very calf and the things it led to that's helped to put me where I am!
Just as I sit here, and these cursed irons rattle whenever I move my feet, I can see that very evening, and father and the old dog with a little mob of our crawling cattle and half-a-dozen head of strangers, cows and calves, and a fat little steer coming through the scrub to the old stockyard.
It was an awkward place for a yard, people used to say; scrubby and stony all round, a blind sort of hole—you couldn't see till you were right on the top of it. But there was a `wing' ran out a good way through the scrub — there's no better guide to a yard like that—and there was a sort of track cattle followed easy enough once you were round the hill. Anyhow, between father and the dog and the old mare he always rode, very few beasts ever broke away.
These strange cattle had been driven a good way, I could see. The cows and calves looked done up, and the steer's tongue was out—it was hottish weather; the old dog had been `heeling' him up too, for he was bleeding up to the hocks, and the end of his tail was bitten off. He was a savage old wretch was Crib. Like all dogs that never bark—and men too—his bite was all the worse.
`Go and get the brands—confound you—don't stand there frightening the cattle,' says father, as the tired cattle, after smelling and jostling a bit, rushed into the yard. `You, Jim, make a fire, and look sharp about it. I want to brand old Polly's calf and another or two.' Father came down to the hut while the brands were getting ready, and began to look at the harness-cask, which stood in a little back skillion. It was pretty empty; we had been living on eggs, bacon, and bread and butter for a week.
`Oh, mother! there's such a pretty red calf in the yard,' I said, `with a star and a white spot on the flank; and there's a yellow steer fat enough to kill!'
`What!' said mother, turning round and looking at father with her eyes staring—a sort of dark blue they were—people used to say mine and Jim's were the same colour—and her brown hair pushed back off her face, as if she was looking at a ghost. `Is it doing that again you are, after all you promised me, and you so nearly caught—after the last one? Didn't I go on my knees to ye to ask ye to drop it and lead a good life, and didn't ye tell me ye'd never do the like again? And the poor innocent children, too, I wonder ye've the heart to do it.'
It came into my head now to wonder why the sergeant and two policemen had come down from Bargo, very early in the morning, about three months ago, and asked father to show them the beef in his cask, and the hide belonging to it. I wondered at the time the beast was killed why father made the hide into a rope, and before he did that had cut out the brand and dropped it into a hot fire. The police saw a hide with our brand on, all right—killed about a fortnight. They didn't know it had been taken off a cancered bullock, and that father took the trouble to `stick' him and bleed him before he took the hide off, so as it shouldn't look dark. Father certainly knew most things in the way of working on the cross. I can see now he'd have made his money a deal easier, and no trouble of mind, if he'd only chosen to go straight.
When mother said this, father looked at her for a bit as if he was sorry for it; then he straightened himself up, and an ugly look came into his face as he growled out—
`You mind your own business; we must live as well as other people. There's squatters here that does as bad. They're just like the squires at home; think a poor man hasn't a right to live. You bring the brand and look alive, Dick, or I'll sharpen ye up a bit.'
The brand was in the corner, but mother got between me and it, and stretched out her hand to father as if to stop me and him.
`In God's name,' she cried out, `aren't ye satisfied with losing your own soul and bringing disgrace upon your family, but ye must be the ruin of your innocent children? Don't touch the brand, Dick!'
But father wasn't a man to be crossed, and what made it worse he had a couple of glasses of bad grog in him. There was an old villain of a shanty-keeper that lived on a back creek. He'd been there as he came by and had a glass or two. He had a regular savage temper, father had, though he was quiet enough and not bad to us when he was right. But the grog always spoiled him.
He gave poor mother a shove which sent her reeling against the wall, where she fell down and hit her head against the stool, and lay there. Aileen, sitting down in the corner, turned white, and began to cry, while father catches me a box on the ear which sends me kicking, picks up the brand out of the corner, and walks out, with me after him.
I think if I'd been another year or so older I'd have struck back—I felt that savage about poor mother that I could have gone at him myself—but we had been too long used to do everything he told us; and somehow, even if a chap's father's a bad one, he don't seem like other men to him. So, as Jim had lighted the fire, we branded the little red heifer calf first—a fine fat six-months-old nugget she was—and then three bull calves, all strangers, and then Polly's calf, I suppose just for a blind. Jim and I knew the four calves were all strangers, but we didn't know the brands of the mothers; they all seemed different.
After this all was made right to kill a beast. The gallows was ready rigged in a corner of the yard; father brought his gun and shot the yellow steer. The calves were put into our calf-pen—Polly's and all—and all the cows turned out to go where they liked.
We helped father to skin and hang up the beast, and pretty late it was when we finished. Mother had laid us out our tea and gone to bed with Aileen. We had ours and then went to bed. Father sat outside and smoked in the starlight. Hours after I woke up and heard mother crying. Before daylight we were up again, and the steer was cut up and salted and in the harness-cask soon after sunrise. His head and feet were all popped into a big pot where we used to make soup for the pigs, and by the time it had been boiling an hour or two there was no fear of any one swearing to the yellow steer by `head-mark'.
We had a hearty breakfast off the `skirt', but mother wouldn't touch a bit, nor let Aileen take any; she took nothing but a bit of bread and a cup of tea, and sat there looking miserable and downcast. Father said nothing, but sat very dark-looking, and ate his food as if nothing was the matter. After breakfast he took his mare, the old dog followed; there was no need to whistle for him—it's my belief he knew more than many a Christian—and away they went. Father didn't come home for a week—he had got into the habit of staying away for days and days together. Then things went on the old way.