It was pretty late that night when we got home, and poor mother and Aileen were that glad to see us that they didn't ask too many questions. Mother would sit and look at the pair of us for ever so long without speaking, and then the tears would come into her eyes and she'd turn away her head.
The old place looked very snug, clean, and comfortable, too, after all the camping-out, and it was first-rate to have our own beds again. Then the milk and fresh butter, and the eggs and bacon—my word! how Jim did lay in; you'd have thought he was goin' on all night.
`By George! home's a jolly place after all,' he said. `I am going to stay ever so long this time, and work like an old near-side poler—see if I don't. Let's look at your hands, Aileen; my word, you've been doin' your share.'
`Indeed, has she,' said mother. `It's a shame, so it is, and her with two big brothers, too.'
`Poor Ailie,' said Jim, `she had to take an axe, had she, in her pretty little hands; but she didn't cut all that wood that's outside the door and I nearly broke my neck over, I'll go bail.'
`How do you know?' says she, smiling roguish-like. `All the world might have been here for what you'd been the wiser—going away nobody knows where, and coming home at night like—like——'
`Bush-rangers,' says I. `Say it out; but we haven't turned out yet, if that's what you mean, Miss Marston.'
`I don't mean anything but what's kind and loving, you naughty boy,' says she, throwing her arms about my neck; `but why will you break our hearts, poor mother's and mine, by going off in such a wild way and staying away, as if you were doing something that you were ashamed of?'
`Women shouldn't ask questions,' I said roughly. `You'll know time enough, and if you never know, perhaps it's all the better.'
Jim was alongside of mother by this time, lying down like a child on the old native dogskin rug that we tanned ourselves with wattle bark. She had her hand on his hair—thick and curly it was always from a child. She didn't say anything, but I could see the tears drip, drip down from her face; her head was on Jim's shoulder, and by and by he put his arms round her neck. I went off to bed, I remember, and left them to it.
Next morning Jim and I were up at sunrise and got in the milkers, as we always did when we were at home. Aileen was up too. She had done all the dairying lately by herself. There were about a dozen cows to milk, and she had managed it all herself every day that we were away; put up the calves every afternoon, drove up the cows in the cold mornings, made the butter, which she used to salt and put into a keg, and feed the pigs with the skim milk. It was rather hard work for her, but I never saw her equal for farm work—rough or smooth. And she used to manage to dress neat and look pretty all the time; not like some small settlers' daughters that I have seen, slouching about with a pair of Blucher boots on, no bonnet, a dirty frock, and a petticoat like a blanket rag—not bad-looking girls either—and their hair like a dry mop. No, Aileen was always neat and tidy, with a good pair of thick boots outside and a thin pair for the house when she'd done her work.
She could frighten a wildish cow and bail up anything that would stay in a yard with her. She could ride like a bird and drive bullocks on a pinch in a dray or at plough, chop wood, too, as well as here and there a one. But when she was in the house and regularly set down to her sewing she'd look that quiet and steady-going you'd think she was only fit to teach in a school or sell laces and gloves.
And so she was when she was let work in her own way, but if she was crossed or put upon, or saw anything going wrong, she'd hold up her head and talk as straight as any man I ever saw. She'd a look just like father when he'd made up his mind, only her way was always the right way. What a difference it makes, doesn't it? And she was so handsome with it. I've seen a goodish lot of women since I left the old place, let alone her that's helped to put me where I am, but I don't think I ever saw a girl that was a patch on Aileen for looks. She had a wonderful fair skin, and her eyes were large and soft like poor mother's. When she was a little raised-like you'd see a pink flush come on her cheeks like a peach blossom in September, and her eyes had a bright startled look like a doe kangaroo when she jumps up and looks round. Her teeth were as white and even as a black gin's. The mouth was something like father's, and when she shut it up we boys always knew she'd made up her mind, and wasn't going to be turned from it. But her heart was that good that she was always thinking of others and not of herself. I believe—I know—she'd have died for any one she loved. She had more sense than all the rest of us put together. I've often thought if she'd been the oldest boy instead of me she'd have kept Jim straight, and managed to drive father out of his cross ways—that is, if any one living could have done it. As for riding, I have never seen any one that could sit a horse or handle him through rough, thick country like her. She could ride barebacked, or next to it, sitting sideways on nothing but a gunny-bag, and send a young horse flying through scrub and rocks, or down ranges where you'd think a horse could hardly keep his feet. We could all ride a bit out of the common, if it comes to that. Better if we'd learned nothing but how to walk behind a plough, year in year out, like some of the folks in father's village in England, as he used to tell us about when he was in a good humour. But that's all as people are reared, I suppose. We'd been used to the outside of a horse ever since we could walk almost, and it came natural to us. Anyhow, I think Aileen was about the best of the lot of us at that, as in everything else.
Well, for a bit all went on pretty well at home. Jim and I worked away steady, got in a tidy bit of crop, and did everything that lay in our way right and regular. We milked the cows in the morning, and brought in a big stack of firewood and chopped as much as would last for a month or two. We mended up the paddock fence, and tidied the garden. The old place hadn't looked so smart for many a day.
When we came in at night old mother used to look that pleased and happy we couldn't help feeling better in our hearts. Aileen used to read something out of the paper that she thought might amuse us. I could read pretty fair, and so could Jim; but we were both lazy at it, and after working pretty hard all day didn't so much care about spelling out the long words in the farming news or the stories they put in. All the same, it would have paid us better if we'd read a little more and put the `bullocking' on one side, at odd times. A man can learn as much out of a book or a paper sometimes in an hour as will save his work for a week, or put him up to working to better purpose. I can see that now—too late, and more's the pity.
Anyhow, Aileen could read pretty near as fast as any one I ever saw, and she used to reel it out for us, as we sat smoking over the fire, in a way that kept us jolly and laughing till it was nearly turning-in time. Now and then George Storefield would come and stay an hour or two. He could read well; nearly as well as she could. Then he had always something to show her that she'd been asking about. His place was eight miles off, but he'd always get his horse and go home, whatever the night was like.
`I must be at my work in the morning,' he'd say; `it's more than half a day gone if you lose that, and I've no half-days to spare, or quarter-days either.'
So we all got on first-rate, and anybody would have thought that there wasn't a more steady-going, hard-working, happy family in the colony. No more there wasn't, while it lasted. After all, what is there that's half as good as being all right and square, working hard for the food you eat, and the sleep you enjoy, able to look all the world in the face, and afraid of nothing and nobody!
We were so quiet and comfortable till the winter was over and the spring coming on, till about September, that I almost began to believe we'd never done anything in our lives we could be made to suffer for.
Now and then, of course, I used to wake up in the night, and my thoughts would go back to `Terrible Hollow', that wonderful place; and one night with the unbranded cattle, and Starlight, with the blood dripping on to his horse's shoulder, and the half-caste, with his hawk's eye and glittering teeth—father, with his gloomy face and dark words. I wondered whether it was all a dream; whether I and Jim had been in at all; whether any of the `cross-work' had been found out; and, if so, what would be done to me and Jim; most of all, though, whether father and Starlight were away after some `big touch'; and, if so, where and what it was, and how soon we should hear of it.
As for Jim, he was one of those happy-go-lucky fellows that didn't bother himself about anything he didn't see or run against. I don't think it ever troubled him. It was the only bad thing he'd ever been in. He'd been drawn in against his will, and I think he had made up his mind—pretty nearly—not to go in for any more.
I have often seen Aileen talking to him, and they'd walk along in the evening when the work was done—he with his arm round her waist, and she looking at him with that quiet, pleased face of hers, seeming so proud and fond of him, as if he'd been the little chap she used to lead about and put on the old pony, and bring into the calf-pen when she was milking. I remember he had a fight with a little bull-calf, about a week old, that came in with a wild heifer, and Aileen made as much of his pluck as if it had been a mallee scrubber. The calf baaed and butted at Jim, as even the youngest of them will, if they've the wild blood in 'em, and nearly upset him; he was only a bit of a toddler. But Jim picked up a loose leg of a milking-stool, and the two went at it hammer and tongs. I could hardly stand for laughing, till the calf gave him best and walked.
Aileen pulled him out, and carried him in to mother, telling her that he was the bravest little chap in the world; and I remember I got scolded for not going to help him. How these little things come back!
`I'm beginning to be afraid,' says George, one evening, `that it's going to be a dry season.'
`There's plenty of time yet,' says Jim, who always took the bright side of things; `it might rain towards the end of the month.'
`I was thinking the same thing,' I said. `We haven't had any rain to speak of for a couple of months, and that bit of wheat of ours is beginning to go back. The oats look better.'
`Now I think of it,' put in Jim, `Dick Dawson came in from outside, and he said things are shocking bad; all the frontage bare already, and the water drying up.'
`It's always the way,' I said, bitter-like. `As soon as a poor man's got a chance of a decent crop, the season turns against him or prices go down, so that he never gets a chance.'
`It's as bad for the rich man, isn't it?' said George. `It's God's will, and we can't make or mend things by complaining.'
`I don't know so much about that,' I said sullenly. `But it's not as bad for the rich man. Even if the squatters suffer by a drought and lose their stock, they've more stock and money in the bank, or else credit to fall back on; while the like of us lose all we have in the world, and no one would lend us a pound afterwards to save our lives.'
`It's not quite so bad as that,' said George. `I shall lose my year's work unless rain comes, and most of the cattle and horses besides; but I shall be able to get a few pounds to go on with, however the season goes.'
`Oh! if you like to bow and scrape to rich people, well and good,' I said; `but that's not my way. We have as good a right to our share of the land and some other good things as they have, and why should we be done out of it?'
`If we pay for the land as they do, certainly,' said George.
`But why should we pay? God Almighty, I suppose, made the land and the people too, one to live on the other. Why should we pay for what is our own? I believe in getting my share somehow.'
`That's a sort of argument that doesn't come out right,' said George. `How would you like another man to come and want to halve the farm with you?'
`I shouldn't mind; I should go halves with some one else who had a bigger one,' I said. `More money too, more horses, more sheep, a bigger house! Why should he have it and not me?'
`That's a lazy man's argument, and—well, not an honest man's,' said George, getting up and putting on his cabbage-tree. `I can't sit and hear you talk such rot. Nobody can work better than you and Jim, when you like. I wonder you don't leave such talk to fellows like Frowser, that's always spouting at the Shearers' Arms.'
`Nonsense or not, if a dry season comes and knocks all our work over, I shall help myself to some one's stuff that has more than he knows what to do with.'
`Why can't we all go shearing, and make as much as will keep us for six months?' said George. `I don't know what we'd do without the squatters.'
`Nor I either; more ways than one; but Jim and I are going shearing next week. So perhaps there won't be any need for "duffing" after all.'
`Oh, Dick!' said Aileen, `I can't bear to hear you make a joke of that kind of thing. Don't we all know what it leads to! Wouldn't it be better to live on dry bread and be honest than to be full of money and never know the day when you'd be dragged to gaol?'
`I've heard all that before; but ain't there lots of people that have made their money by all sorts of villainy, that look as well as the best, and never see a gaol?'
`They're always caught some day,' says poor Aileen, sobbing, `and what a dreadful life of anxiety they must lead!'
`Not at all,' I said. `Look at Lucksly, Squeezer, and Frying-pan Jack. Everybody knows how they got their stock and their money. See how they live. They've got stations, and public-house and town property, and they get richer every year. I don't think it pays to be too honest in a dry country.'
`You're a naughty boy, Dick; isn't he, Jim?' she said, smiling through her tears. `But he doesn't mean half what he says, does he?'
`Not he,' says Jim; `and very likely we'll have lots of rain after all.'