On Our Selection, by Steele Rudd

Chapter 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.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rudd/steele/on_our_selection/chapter4.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33