“My! it’ll be a stinger to-night,” Dad remarked to Mrs. Brown—who sat, cold-looking, on the sofa—as he staggered inside with an immense log for the fire. A log! Nearer a whole tree! But wood was nothing in Dad’s eyes.
Mrs. Brown had been at our place five or six days. Old Brown called occasionally to see her, so we knew they could n’t have quarrelled. Sometimes she did a little house-work, but more often she did n’t. We talked it over together, but could n’t make it out. Joe asked Mother, but she had no idea—so she said. We were full up, as Dave put it, of Mrs. Brown, and wished her out of the place. She had taken to ordering us about, as though she had something to do with us.
After supper we sat round the fire—as near to it as we could without burning ourselves—Mrs. Brown and all, and listened to the wind whistling outside. Ah, it was pleasant beside the fire listening to the wind! When Dad had warmed himself back and front he turned to us and said:
“Now, boys, we must go directly and light some fires and keep those wallabies back.”
That was a shock to us, and we looked at him to see if he were really in earnest. He was, and as serious as a judge.
“To-night!” Dave answered, surprisedly—“why to-night any more than last night or the night before? Thought you had decided to let them rip?”
“Yes, but we might as well keep them off a bit longer.”
“But there’s no wheat there for them to get now. So what’s the good of watching them? There’s no sense in that.”
Dad was immovable.
“Anyway”—whined Joe—“I’m not going—not a night like this—not when I ain’t got boots.”
That vexed Dad. “Hold your tongue, sir!” he said—“you’ll do as you’re told.”
But Dave had n’t finished. “I’ve been following that harrow since sunrise this morning,” he said, “and now you want me to go chasing wallabies about in the dark, a night like this, and for nothing else but to keep them from eating the ground. It’s always the way here, the more one does the more he’s wanted to do,” and he commenced to cry. Mrs. Brown had something to say. She agreed with Dad and thought we ought to go, as the wheat might spring up again.
“Pshah!” Dave blurted out between his sobs, while we thought of telling her to shut her mouth.
Slowly and reluctantly we left that roaring fireside to accompany Dad that bitter night. It was a night!—dark as pitch, silent, forlorn and forbidding, and colder than the busiest morgue. And just to keep wallabies from eating nothing! They had eaten all the wheat—every blade of it—and the grass as well. What they would start on next—ourselves or the cart-harness—was n’t quite clear.
We stumbled along in the dark one behind the other, with our hands stuffed into our trousers. Dad was in the lead, and poor Joe, bare-shinned and bootless, in the rear. Now and again he tramped on a Bathurst-burr, and, in sitting down to extract the prickle, would receive a cluster of them elsewhere. When he escaped the burr it was only to knock his shin against a log or leave a toe-nail or two clinging to a stone. Joe howled, but the wind howled louder, and blew and blew.
Dave, in pausing to wait on Joe, would mutter:
“To hell with everything! Whatever he wants bringing us out a night like this, I’m damned if I know!”
Dad could n’t see very well in the dark, and on this night could n’t see at all, so he walked up against one of the old draught horses that had fallen asleep gazing at the lucerne. And what a fright they both got! The old horse took it worse than Dad—who only tumbled down—for he plunged as though the devil had grabbed him, and fell over the fence, twisting every leg he had in the wires. How the brute struggled! We stood and listened to him. After kicking panels of the fence down and smashing every wire in it, he got loose and made off, taking most of it with him.
“That’s one wallaby on the wheat, anyway,” Dave muttered, and we giggled. We understood Dave; but Dad did n’t open his mouth.
We lost no time lighting the fires. Then we walked through the “wheat” and wallabies! May Satan reprove me if I exaggerate their number by one solitary pair of ears—but from the row and scatter they made there were a million.
Dad told Joe, at last, he could go to sleep if he liked, at the fire. Joe went to sleep—how, I don’t know. Then Dad sat beside him, and for long intervals would stare silently into the darkness. Sometimes a string of the vermin would hop past close to the fire, and another time a curlew would come near and screech its ghostly wail, but he never noticed them. Yet he seemed to be listening.
We mooched around from fire to fire, hour after hour, and when we wearied of heaving fire-sticks at the enemy we sat on our heels and cursed the wind, and the winter, and the night-birds alternately. It was a lonely, wretched occupation.
Now and again Dad would leave his fire to ask us if we could hear a noise. We could n’t, except that of wallabies and mopokes. Then he would go back and listen again. He was restless, and, somehow, his heart was n’t in the wallabies at all. Dave could n’t make him out.
The night wore on. By-and-by there was a sharp rattle of wires, then a rustling noise, and Sal appeared in the glare of the fire. “Dad!” she said. That was all. Without a word, Dad bounced up and went back to the house with her.
“Something’s up!” Dave said, and, half-anxious, half-afraid, we gazed into the fire and thought and thought. Then we stared, nervously, into the night, and listened for Dad’s return, but heard only the wind and the mopoke.
At dawn he appeared again, with a broad smile on his face, and told us that mother had got another baby—a fine little chap. Then we knew why Mrs. Brown had been staying at our place.