On Our Selection, by Steele Rudd

Chapter 9.

Dave’s Snakebite.

One hot day, as we were finishing dinner, a sheriff’s bailiff rode up to the door. Norah saw him first. She was dressed up ready to go over to Mrs. Anderson’s to tea. Sometimes young Harrison had tea at Anderson’s — Thursdays, usually. This was Thursday; and Norah was starting early, because it was “a good step of a way”.

She reported the visitor. Dad left the table, munching some bread, and went out to him. Mother looked out of the door; Sal went to the window; Little Bill and Tom peeped through a crack; Dave remained at his dinner; and Joe knavishly seized the opportunity of exploring the table for leavings, finally seating himself in Dad’s place, and commencing where Dad had left off.

“Jury summons,” said the meek bailiff, extracting a paper from his breast-pocket, and reading, “Murtagh Joseph Rudd, selector, Shingle Hut . . . Correct?”

Dad nodded assent.

“Got any water?”

There wasn’t a drop in the cask, so Dad came in and asked Mother if there was any tea left. She pulled a long, solemn, Sunday-school face, and looked at Joe, who was holding the teapot upside-down, shaking the tea-leaves into his cup.

“Tea, Dad?” he chuckled —“by golly!”

Dad didn’t think it worth while going out to the bailiff again. He sent Joe.

“Not any at all?”

“Nothink,” said Joe.

“H’m! Nulla bona, eh?” And the Law smiled at its own joke and went off thirsty.

Thus it was that Dad came to be away one day when his great presence of mind and ability as a bush doctor was most required at Shingle Hut.

Dave took Dad’s place at the plough. One of the horses — a colt that Dad bought with the money he got for helping with Anderson’s crop — had only just been broken. He was bad at starting. When touched with the rein he would stand and wait until the old furrow-horse put in a few steps; then plunge to get ahead of him, and if a chain or a swingle-tree or something else didn’t break, and Dave kept the plough in, he ripped and tore along in style, bearing in and bearing out, and knocking the old horse about till that much-enduring animal became as cranky as himself, and the pace terrible. Down would go the plough-handles, and, with one tremendous pull on the reins, Dave would haul them back on to their rumps. Then he would rush up and kick the colt on the root of the tail, and if that didn’t make him put his leg over the chains and kick till he ran a hook into his heel and lamed himself, or broke something, it caused him to rear up and fall back on the plough and snort and strain and struggle till there was not a stitch left on him but the winkers.

Now, if Dave was noted for one thing more than another it was for his silence. He scarcely ever took the trouble to speak. He hated to be asked a question, and mostly answered by nodding his head. Yet, though he never seemed to practise, he could, when his blood was fairly up, swear with distinction and effect. On this occasion he swore through the whole afternoon without repeating himself.

Towards evening Joe took the reins and began to drive. He hadn’t gone once around when, just as the horses approached a big dead tree that had been left standing in the cultivation, he planted his left foot heavily upon a Bathurst-burr that had been cut and left lying. It clung to him. He hopped along on one leg, trying to kick it off; still it clung to him. He fell down. The horses and the tree got mixed up, and everything was confusion.

Dave abused Joe remorselessly. “Go on!” he howled, waving in the air a fistful of grass and weeds which he had pulled from the nose of the plough; “clear out of this altogether! — you’re only a damn nuisance.”

Joe’s eyes rested on the fistful of grass. They lit up suddenly.

“L-l-look out, Dave,” he stuttered; “y’-y’ got a s-s-snake.”

Dave dropped the grass promptly. A deaf-adder crawled out of it. Joe killed it. Dave looked closely at his hand, which was all scratches and scars. He looked at it again; then he sat on the beam of the plough, pale and miserable-looking.

“D-d-did it bite y’, Dave?” No answer.

Joe saw a chance to distinguish himself, and took it. He ran home, glad to be the bearer of the news, and told Mother that “Dave’s got bit by a adder — a sudden-death adder — right on top o’ the finger.”

How Mother screamed! “My God! whatever shall we do? Run quick,” she said, “and bring Mr. Maloney. Dear! oh dear! oh dear!”

Joe had not calculated on this injunction. He dropped his head and said sullenly: “Wot, walk all the way over there?”

Before he could say another word a tin-dish left a dinge on the back of his skull that will accompany him to his grave if he lives to be a thousand.

“You wretch, you! Why don’t you run when I tell you?”

Joe sprang in the air like a shot wallaby.

“I’ll not go AT ALL now — y’ see!” he answered, starting to cry. Then Sal put on her hat and ran for Maloney.

Meanwhile Dave took the horses out, walked inside, and threw himself on the sofa without uttering a word. He felt ill.

Mother was in a paroxysm of fright. She threw her arms about frantically and cried for someone to come. At last she sat down and tried to think what she could do. She thought of the very thing, and ran for the carving-knife, which she handed to Dave with shut eyes. He motioned her with a disdainful movement of the elbow to take it away.

Would Maloney never come! He was coming, hat in hand, and running for dear life across the potato-paddock. Behind him was his man. Behind his man — Sal, out of breath. Behind her, Mrs. Maloney and the children.

“Phwat’s the thrubble?” cried Maloney. “Bit be a dif — adher? O, be the tares of war!” Then he asked Dave numerous questions as to how it happened, which Joe answered with promptitude and pride. Dave simply shrugged his shoulders and turned his face to the wall. Nothing was to be got out of him.

Maloney held a short consultation with himself. Then —“Hould up yer hand!” he said, bending over Dave with a knife. Dave thrust out his arm violently, knocked the instrument to the other side of the room, and kicked wickedly.

“The pison’s wurrkin’,” whispered Maloney quite loud.

“Oh, my gracious!” groaned Mother.

“The poor crathur,” said Mrs. Maloney.

There was a pause.

“Phwhat finger’s bit?” asked Maloney. Joe thought it was the littlest one of the lot.

He approached the sofa again, knife in hand.

“Show me yer finger,” he said to Dave.

For the first time Dave spoke. He said:

“Damn y’— what the devil do y’ want? Clear out and lea’ me ’lone.”

Maloney hesitated. There was a long silence. Dave commenced breathing heavily.

“It’s maikin’ ’m slape,” whispered Maloney, glancing over his shoulder at the women.

“Don’t let him! Don’t let him!” Mother wailed.

“Salvation to ’s all!” muttered Mrs. Maloney, piously crossing herself.

Maloney put away the knife and beckoned to his man, who was looking on from the door. They both took a firm hold of Dave and stood him upon his feet. He looked hard and contemptuously at Maloney for some seconds. Then with gravity and deliberation Dave said: “Now wot ’n th’ devil are y’ up t’? Are y’ mad?”

“Walk ’m along, Jaimes — walk ’m — along,” was all Maloney had to say. And out into the yard they marched him. How Dave did struggle to get away! — swearing and cursing Maloney for a cranky Irishman till he foamed at the mouth, all of which the other put down to snake-poison. Round and round the yard and up and down it they trotted him till long after dark, until there wasn’t a struggle left in him.

They placed him on the sofa again, Maloney keeping him awake with a strap. How Dave ground his teeth and kicked and swore whenever he felt that strap! And they sat and watched him.

It was late in the night when Dad came from town. He staggered in with the neck of a bottle showing out of his pocket. In his hand was a piece of paper wrapped round the end of some yards of sausage. The dog outside carried the other end.

“An’ ’e ishn’t dead?” Dad said, after hearing what had befallen Dave. “Don’ b’leevsh id — wuzhn’t bit. Die ’fore shun’own ifsh desh ad’er bish ’m.”

“Bit!” Dave said bitterly, turning round to the surprise of everyone. “I never said I was BIT. No one said I was — only those snivelling idiots and that pumpkin-headed Irish pig there.”

Maloney lowered his jaw and opened his eyes.

“Zhackly. Did’n’ I (HIC) shayzo, ’Loney? Did’n’ I, eh, ol’ wom’n!” Dad mumbled, and dropped his chin on his chest.

Maloney began to take another view of the matter. He put a leading question to Joe.

“He MUSTER been bit,” Joe answered, “’cuz he had the d-death adder in his hand.”

More silence.

“Mush die ’fore shun’own,” Dad murmured.

Maloney was thinking hard. At last he spoke. “Bridgy!” he cried, “where’s th’ childer?” Mrs. Maloney gathered them up.

Just then Dad seemed to be dreaming. He swayed about. His head hung lower, and he muttered, “Shen’l’m’n, yoush disharged wish shanksh y’cun’ry.”

The Maloneys left.

Dave is still alive and well, and silent as ever; and if any one question is more intolerable and irritating to him than another, it is to be asked if he remembers the time he was bitten by deaf-adder.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rudd/steele/on_our_selection/chapter9.html

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