A sweltering summer’s afternoon. A heat that curled and withered the very weeds. The corn-blades drooping, sulking still. Mother and Sal ironing, mopping their faces with a towel and telling each other how hot it was. The dog stretched across the doorway. A child’s bonnet on the floor — the child out in the sun. Two horsemen approaching the slip-rails.
Dad had gone down the gully to Farmer, who had been sick for four days. The ploughing was at a standstill in consequence, for we had only two draught-horses. Dad erected a shelter over him, made of boughs, to keep the sun off. Two or three times a day he cut greenstuff for him — which the cows ate. He humped water to him which he sullenly refused to drink; and did all in his power to persuade Farmer to get up and go on with the ploughing. I don’t know if Dad knew anything of mesmerism, but he used to stand for long intervals dumbly staring the old horse full in the eyes till in a commanding voice he would bid him, “Get up!” But Farmer lacked the patriotism of the back-block poets. He was obdurate, and not once did he “awake,” not to mention “arise”.
This afternoon, as Dad approached his dumb patient, he suddenly put down the bucket of water which he was carrying and ran, shouting angrily. A flock of crows flew away from Farmer and “cawed” from a tree close by. Dad was excited, and when he saw that one of the animal’s eyes was gone and a stream of blood trickled over its nose he sat down and hid his face in his big rough hands.
“CAW, CAW!” came from the tree.
Dad rose and looked up.
“CURSE you!” he hissed —“you black wretches of hell!”
“CAW, CAW, CAW”
He ran towards the tree as though he would hurl it to the ground, and away flew the crows.
“W-w-wuz they at him, Dad?”
Dad turned on him, trembling with rage.
“Oh, YOU son of the Devil!” he commenced. “YOU worthless pup, you! Look there! Do you see that?” (He pointed to the horse.) “Didn’t I tell you to mind him? Did n’—”
“Yes,” snivelled Joe; “but Anderson’s dog had a k-k-k-angaroo bailed up.”
“DAMN you, be off out of this!” And Dad aimed a block of wood at Joe which struck him on the back as he made away. But nothing short of two broken legs would stop Joe, who the next instant had dashed among the corn like an emu into a scrub.
Dad returned to the house, foaming and vowing to take the gun and shoot Joe down like a wallaby. But when he saw two horses hanging up he hesitated and would have gone away again had Mother not called out that he was wanted. He went in reluctantly.
Red Donovan and his son, Mick, were there. Donovan was the publican, butcher, and horse-dealer at the Overhaul. He was reputed to be well-in, though some said that if everybody had their own he wouldn’t be worth much. He was a glib-tongued Irishman who knew everything — or fondly imagined he did — from the law to horse-surgery. There was money to be made out of selections, he reckoned, if selectors only knew how to make it — the majority, he proclaimed, didn’t know enough to get under a tree when it rained. As a dealer, he was a hard nut, never giving more than a “tenner” for a twenty pound beast, or selling a ten pound one for less than twenty pounds. And few knew Donovan better than did Dad, or had been taken in by him oftener; but on this occasion Dad was in no easy or benevolent frame of mind.
He sat down, and they talked of crops and the weather, and beat about the bush until Donovan said:
“Have you any fat steers to sell?”
Dad hadn’t. “But,” he added, “I can sell you a horse.”
“Which one?” asked Donovan, for he knew the horses as well as Dad did — perhaps better.
“The bay — Farmer.”
“Seven pounds.” Now, Farmer was worth fourteen pounds, if worth a shilling — that is, before he took sick — and Donovan knew it well.
“Seven,” he repeated ponderingly. “Give you six.”
Never before did Dad show himself such an expert in dissimulation. He shook his head knowingly, and enquired of Donovan if he would take the horse for nothing.
“Split the difference, then — make it six-ten?”
Dad rose and looked out the window.
“There he is now,” he remarked sadly, “in the gully there.”
“Well, what’s it to be — six-ten or nothing?” renewed Donovan.
“All right, then,” Dad replied, demurely, “take him!”
The money was paid there and then and receipts drawn up. Then, saying that Mick would come for the horse on the day following, and after offering a little gratuitous advice on seed-wheat and pig-sticking, the Donovans left.
Mick came the next day, and Dad showed him Farmer, under the bushes. He wasn’t dead, because when Joe sat on him he moved. “There he is,” said Dad, grinning.
Mick remained seated on his horse, bewildered-looking, staring first at Farmer, then at Dad.
“Well?” Dad remarked, still grinning. Then Mick spoke feelingly.
“YOU SWINDLING OLD CRAWLER!” he said, and galloped away. It was well for him he got a good start.
For long after that we turned the horses and cows into the little paddock at night, and if ever the dog barked Dad would jump up and go out in his shirt.
We put them back into the paddock again, and the first night they were there two cows got out and went away, taking with them the chain that fastened the slip-rails. We never saw or heard of them again; but Dad treasured them in his heart. Often, when he was thoughtful, he would ponder out plans for getting even with the Donovans — we knew it was the Donovans. And Fate seemed to be of Dad’s mind; for the Donovans got into “trouble,”, and were reported to be “doing time.” That pleased Dad; but the vengeance was a little vague. He would have liked a finger in the pie himself.
Four years passed. It was after supper, and we were all husking corn in the barn. Old Anderson and young Tom Anderson and Mrs. Maloney were helping us. We were to assist them the following week. The barn was illuminated by fat-lamps, which made the spiders in the rafters uneasy and disturbed the slumbers of a few fowls that for months had insisted on roosting on the cross-beam.
Mrs. Maloney was arguing with Anderson. She was claiming to have husked two cobs to his one, when the dogs started barking savagely. Dad crawled from beneath a heap of husks and went out. The night was dark. He bade the dogs “Lie down.” They barked louder. “Damn you — lie down!” he roared. They shut up. Then a voice from the darkness said:
“Is that you, Mr. Rudd?”
Dad failed to recognise it, and went to the fence where the visitor was. He remained there talking for fully half-an-hour. Then he returned, and said it was young Donovan.
“DONOVAN! MICK Donovan?” exclaimed Anderson. And Mother and Mrs. Maloney and Joe echoed “MICK Donovan?” They WERE surprised.
“He’s none too welcome,” said Anderson, thinking of his horses and cows. Mother agreed with him, while Mrs. Maloney repeated over and over again that she was always under the impression that Mick Donovan was in gaol along with his bad old father. Dad was uncommunicative. There was something on his mind. He waited till the company had gone, then consulted with Dave.
They were outside, in the dark, and leant on the dray. Dad said in a low voice: “He’s come a hundred mile to-day, ’n’ his horse is dead-beat, ’n’ he wants one t’ take him t’ Back Creek t’morrer ’n’ leave this one in his place . . . Wot d’y’ think?” Dave seemed to think a great deal, for he said nothing.
“Now,” continued Dad, “it’s me opinion the horse isn’t his; it’s one he’s shook — an’ I’ve an idea.” Then he proceeded to instruct Dave in the idea. A while later he called Joe and drilled him in the idea.
That night, young Donovan stayed at Shingle Hut. In the morning Dad was very affable. He asked Donovan to come and show him his horse, as he must see it before thinking of exchanging. They proceeded to the paddock together. The horse was standing under a tree, tired-looking. Dad stood and looked at Donovan for fully half-a-minute without speaking.
“Why, damn it!” he exclaimed, at last, “that’s MY OWN horse . . . You don’t mean . . . S’help me! Old Bess’s foal!” Donovan told him he was making a mistake.
“Mistake be hanged!” replied Dad, walking round the animal. “Not much of a mistake about HIM!”
Just here Dave appeared, as was proper.
“Do you know this horse?” Dad asked him. “Yes, of course,” he answered, surprisedly, with his eyes open wide, “Bess’s foal! — of course it is.”
“There you are!” said Dad, grinning triumphantly.
Donovan seemed uneasy.
Joe in his turn appeared. Dad put the same question to him. Of course Joe knew Bess’s foal —“the one that got stole.”
There was a silence.
“Now,” said Dad, looking very grave, “what have y’ got t’ say? Who’d y’ get him off? Show’s y’r receipt.”
Donovan had nothing to say; he preferred to be silent.
“Then,” Dad went on, “clear out of this as fast as you can go, an’ think y’rself lucky.”
He cleared, but on foot.
Dad gazed after him, and, as he left the paddock, said:
“One too many f’ y’ that time, Mick Donovan!” Then to Dave, who was still looking at the horse: “He’s a stolen one right enough, but he’s a beauty, and we’ll keep him; and if the owner ever comes for him, well — if he is the owner — he can have him, that’s all.”
We had the horse for eighteen months and more. One day Dad rode him to town. He was no sooner there than a man came up and claimed him. Dad objected. The man went off and brought a policeman. “Orright”— Dad said —“TAKE him.” The policeman took him. He took Dad too. The lawyer got Dad off, but it cost us five bags of potatoes. Dad didn’t grudge them, for he reckoned we’d had value. Besides, he was even with the Donovans for the two cows.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54