On Our Selection, by Steele Rudd

Chapter 7.

Cranky Jack.

It was early in the day. Traveller after traveller was trudging by Shingle Hut. One who carried no swag halted at the rails and came in. He asked Dad for a job. “I dunno,” Dad answered —“What wages would you want?” The man said he wouldn’t want any. Dad engaged him at once.

And SUCH a man! Tall, bony, heavy-jawed, shaven with a reaping-hook, apparently. He had a thick crop of black hair — shaggy, unkempt, and full of grease, grass, and fragments of dry gum-leaves. On his head were two old felt hats — one sewn inside the other. On his back a shirt made from a piece of blue blanket, with white cotton stitches striding up and down it like lines of fencing. His trousers were gloom itself; they were a problem, and bore reliable evidence of his industry. No ordinary person would consider himself out of work while in them. And the new-comer was no ordinary person. He seemed to have all the woe of the world upon him; he was as sad and weird-looking as a widow out in the wet.

In the yard was a large heap of firewood — remarkable truth! — which Dad told him to chop up. He began. And how he worked! The axe rang again — particularly when it left the handle — and pieces of wood scattered everywhere. Dad watched him chopping for a while, then went with Dave to pull corn.

For hours the man chopped away without once looking at the sun. Mother came out. Joy! She had never seen so much wood cut before. She was delighted. She made a cup of tea and took it to the man, and apologised for having no sugar to put in it. He paid no attention to her; he worked harder. Mother waited, holding the tea in her hand. A lump of wood nearly as big as a shingle flew up and shaved her left ear. She put the tea on the ground and went in search of eggs for dinner. (We were out of meat — the kangaroo-dog was lame. He had got “ripped” the last time we killed.)

The tea remained on the ground. Chips fell into it. The dog saw it. He limped towards it eagerly, and dipped the point of his nose in it. It burnt him. An aged rooster strutted along and looked sideways at it. HE distrusted it and went away. It attracted the pig — a sow with nine young ones. She waddled up, and poked the cup over with her nose; then she sat down on it, while the family joyously gathered round the saucer. Still the man chopped on.

Mother returned — without any eggs. She rescued the crockery from the pigs and turned curiously to the man. She said, “Why, you’ve let them take the tea!” No answer. She wondered.

Suddenly, and for the fiftieth time, the axe flew off. The man held the handle and stared at the woodheap. Mother watched him. He removed his hats, and looked inside them. He remained looking inside them.

Mother watched him more closely. His lips moved. He said, “LISTEN TO THEM! THEY’RE COMING! I KNEW THEY’D FOLLOW!”

“Who?” asked Mother, trembling slightly.

“THEY’RE IN THE WOOD!” he went on. “Ha, ha! I’ve got them. They’ll never get out; NEVER GET OUT!”

Mother fled, screaming. She ran inside and called the children. Sal assisted her. They trooped in like wallabies — all but Joe. He was away earning money. He was getting a shilling a week from Maloney, for chasing cockatoos from the corn.

They closed and barricaded the doors, and Sal took down the gun, which Mother made her hide beneath the bed. They sat listening, anxiously and intently. The wind began to rise. A lump of soot fell from the chimney into the fireplace — where there was no fire. Mother shuddered. Some more fell. Mother jumped to her feet. So did Sal. They looked at each other in dismay. The children began to cry. The chain for hanging the kettle on started swinging to and fro. Mother’s knees gave way. The chain continued swinging. A pair of bare legs came down into the fireplace — they were curled round the chain. Mother collapsed. Sal screamed, and ran to the door, but couldn’t open it. The legs left the chain and dangled in the air. Sal called “Murder!”

Her cry was answered. It was Joe, who had been over at Maloney’s making his fortune. He came to the rescue. He dropped out of the chimney and shook himself. Sal stared at him. He was calm and covered from head to foot with soot and dirt. He looked round and said, “Thought yuz could keep me out, did’n’y’?” Sal could only look at him. “I saw yuz all run in,” he was saying, when Sal thought of Mother, and sprang to her. Sal shook her, and slapped her, and threw water on her till she sat up and stared about. Then Joe stared.

Dad came in for dinner — which, of course, wasn’t ready. Mother began to cry, and asked him what he meant by keeping a madman on the place, and told him she KNEW he wanted to have them all murdered. Dad didn’t understand. Sal explained. Then he went out and told the man to “Clear!” The man simply said, “No.”

“Go on, now!” Dad said, pointing to the rails. The man smiled at the wood-heap as he worked. Dad waited. “Ain’t y’ going?” he repeated.

“Leave me alone when I’m chopping wood for the missus,” the man answered; then smiled and muttered to himself. Dad left him alone and went inside wondering.

Next day Mother and Dad were talking at the barn. Mother, bare-headed, was holding some eggs in her apron. Dad was leaning on a hoe.

“I am AFRAID of him,” Mother said; “it’s not right you should keep him about the place. No one’s safe with such a man. Some day he’ll take it in his head to kill us all, and then —”

“Tut, tut, woman; poor old Jack! he’s harmless as a baby.”

“All right,” (sullenly); “you’ll see!”

Dad laughed and went away with the hoe on his shoulder to cut burr.

Middle of summer. Dad and Dave in the paddock mowing lucerne. Jack sinking post-holes for a milking-yard close to the house. Joe at intervals stealing behind him to prick him with straws through a rent in the rear of his patched moleskins. Little Bill — in readiness to run — standing off, enjoying the sport.

Inside the house sat Mother and Sal, sewing and talking of Maloney’s new baby.

“Dear me,” said Mother; “it’s the tiniest mite of a thing I ever saw; why, bless me, anyone of y’ at its age would have made three of —”

“MIND, Mother!” Sal shrieked, jumping up on the sofa. Mother screamed and mounted the table. Both gasped for breath, and leaning cautiously over peeped down at a big black snake which had glided in at the front door. Then, pale and scared-looking, they stared across at each other.

The snake crawled over to the safe and drank up some milk which had been spilt on the floor. Mother saw its full length and groaned. The snake wriggled to the leg of the table.

“Look out!” cried Sal, gathering up her skirts and dancing about on the sofa.

Mother squealed hysterically.

Joe appeared. He laughed.

“You wretch!” Mother yelled. “Run! — RUN, and fetch your father!”

Joe went and brought Jack.

“Oh-h, my God!”— Mother moaned, as Jack stood at the door, staring strangely at her. “Kill it! — why don’t he kill it?”

Jack didn’t move, but talked to himself. Mother shuddered.

The reptile crawled to the bedroom door. Then for the first time the man’s eyes rested upon it. It glided into the bedroom, and Mother and Sal ran off for Dad.

Jack fixed his eyes on the snake and continued muttering to himself. Several times it made an attempt to mount the dressing-table. Finally it succeeded. Suddenly Jack’s demeanour changed. He threw off his ragged hat and talked wildly. A fearful expression filled his ugly features. His voice altered.

“You’re the Devil!” he said; “THE DEVIL! THE DEVIL! The missus brought you — ah-h-h!”

The snake’s head passed behind the looking-glass. Jack drew nearer, clenching his fists and gesticulating. As he did he came full before the looking-glass and saw, perhaps for the first time in his life, his own image. An unearthly howl came from him. “ME FATHER!” he shouted, and bolted from the house.

Dad came in with the long-handled shovel, swung it about the room, and smashed pieces off the cradle, and tore the bed-curtains down, and made a great noise altogether. Finally, he killed the snake and put it on the fire; and Joe and the cat watched it wriggle on the hot coals.

Meanwhile, Jack, bare-headed, rushed across the yard. He ran over little Bill, and tumbled through the wire-fence on to the broad of his back. He roared like a wild beast, clutched at space, spat, and kicked his heels in the air.

“Let me up! —— AH-H-H! — let go me throat!” he hissed.

The dog ran over and barked at him. He found his feet again, and, making off, ran through the wheat, glancing back over his shoulder as he tore along. He crossed into the grass paddock, and running to a big tree dodged round and round it. Then from tree to tree he went, and that evening at sundown, when Joe was bringing the cows home, Jack was still flying from “his father”.

After supper.

“I wonder now what the old fool saw in that snake to send him off his head like that?” Dad said, gazing wonderingly into the fire. “He sees plenty of them, goodness knows.”

“That wasn’t it. It wasn’t the snake at all,” Mother said; “there was madness in the man’s eyes all the while. I saw it the moment he came to the door.” She appealed to Sal.

“Nonsense!” said Dad; “NONSENSE!” and he tried to laugh.

“Oh, of course it’s NONSENSE,” Mother went on; “everything I say is nonsense. It won’t be nonsense when you come home some day and find us all on the floor with our throats cut.”

“Pshaw!” Dad answered; “what’s the use of talking like that?” Then to Dave: “Go out and see if he’s in the barn!”

Dave fidgetted. He didn’t like the idea. Joe giggled.

“Surely you’re not FRIGHTENED?” Dad shouted.

Dave coloured up.

“No — don’t think so,” he said; and, after a pause, “YOU go and see.”

It was Dad’s turn to feel uneasy. He pretended to straighten the fire, and coughed several times. “Perhaps it’s just as well,” he said, “to let him be to-night.”

Of course, Dad wasn’t afraid; he SAID he wasn’t, but he drove the pegs in the doors and windows before going to bed that night.

Next morning, Dad said to Dave and Joe, “Come ’long, and we’ll see where he’s got to.”

In a gully at the back of the grass-paddock they found him. He was ploughing — sitting astride the highest limb of a fallen tree, and, in a hoarse voice and strange, calling out —“Gee, Captain! — come here, Tidy! — WA-AY!”

“Blowed if I know,” Dad muttered, coming to a standstill. “Wonder if he is clean mad?”

Dave was speechless, and Joe began to tremble.

They listened. And as the man’s voice rang out in the quiet gully and the echoes rumbled round the ridge and the affrighted birds flew up, the place felt eerie somehow.

“It’s no use bein’ afraid of him,” Dad went on. “We must go and bounce him, that’s all.” But there was a tremor in Dad’s voice which Dave didn’t like.

“See if he knows us, anyway.”— and Dad shouted, “HEY-Y!”

Jack looked up and immediately scrambled from the limb. That was enough for Dave. He turned and made tracks. So did Dad and Joe. They ran. No one could have run harder. Terror overcame Joe. He squealed and grabbed hold of Dad’s shirt, which was ballooning in the wind.

“Let go!” Dad gasped. “DAMN Y’, let me GO! “— trying to shake him off. But Joe had great faith in his parent, and clung to him closely.

When they had covered a hundred yards or so, Dave glanced back, and seeing that Jack wasn’t pursuing them, stopped and chuckled at the others.

“Eh?” Dad said, completely winded —“Eh?” Then to Dave, when he got some breath:

“Well, you ARE an ass of a fellow. (PUFF!). What th’ DEVIL did y’ RUN f’?”

“Wot did I run f’? What did YOU run f’?”

“Bah!” and Dad boldly led the way back.

“Now look here (turning fiercely upon Joe), don’t you come catching hold of me again, or if y’ DO I’ll knock y’r d — d head off! . . . Clear home altogether, and get under the bed if y’re as frightened as THAT.”

Joe slunk behind.

But when Dad DID approach Jack, which wasn’t until he had talked a great deal to him across a big log, the latter didn’t show any desire to take life, but allowed himself to be escorted home and locked in the barn quietly enough.

Dad kept Jack confined in the barn several days, and if anyone approached the door or the cracks he would ask:

“Is me father there yet?”

“Your father’s dead and buried long ago, man,” Dad used to tell him.

“Yes,” he would say, “but he’s alive again. The missus keeps him in there”— indicating the house.

And sometimes when Dad was not about Joe would put his mouth to a crack and say:

“Here’s y’r FATHER, Jack!” Then, like a caged beast, the man would howl and tramp up and down, his eyes starting out of his head, while Joe would bolt inside and tell Mother that “Jack’s getting out,”, and nearly send her to her grave.

But one day Jack DID get out, and, while Mother and Sal were ironing came to the door with the axe on his shoulder.

They dropped the irons and shrank into a corner and cowered piteously — too scared even to cry out.

He took no notice of them, but, moving stealthily on tip-toes, approached the bedroom door and peeped in. He paused just a moment to grip the axe with both hands. Then with a howl and a bound he entered the room and shattered the looking-glass into fragments.

He bent down and looked closely at the pieces.

“He’s dead now,” he said calmly, and walked out. Then he went to work at the post-holes again, just as though nothing had happened.

Fifteen years have passed since then, and the man is still at Shingle Hut. He was the best horse Dad ever had. He slaved from daylight till dark; keeps no Sunday; knows no companion; lives chiefly on meat and machine oil; domiciles in the barn; and has never asked for a rise in his wages. His name we never knew. We call him “Jack.” The neighbours called him “CRANKY Jack.”

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