Mary had heard of a light American waggonette, when the steers went— a tray-body arrangement, and she thought she’d do with that. ‘It would be better than the buggy, Joe,’ she said— ‘there’d be more room for the children, and, besides, I could take butter and eggs to Gulgong, or Cobborah, when we get a few more cows.’ Then James heard of a small flock of sheep that a selector— who was about starved off his selection out Talbragar way— wanted to get rid of. James reckoned he could get them for less than half-a-crown a-head. We’d had a heavy shower of rain, that came over the ranges and didn’t seem to go beyond our boundaries. Mary said, ‘It’s a pity to see all that grass going to waste, Joe. Better get those sheep and try your luck with them. Leave some money with me, and I’ll send James over for them. Never mind about the buggy— we’ll get that when we’re on our feet.’
So James rode across to Talbragar and drove a hard bargain with that unfortunate selector, and brought the sheep home. There were about two hundred, wethers and ewes, and they were young and looked a good breed too, but so poor they could scarcely travel; they soon picked up, though. The drought was blazing all round and Out-Back, and I think that my corner of the ridges was the only place where there was any grass to speak of. We had another shower or two, and the grass held out. Chaps began to talk of ‘Joe Wilson’s luck’.
I would have liked to shear those sheep; but I hadn’t time to get a shed or anything ready—along towards Christmas there was a bit of a boom in the carrying line. Wethers in wool were going as high as thirteen to fifteen shillings at the Homebush yards at Sydney, so I arranged to truck the sheep down from the river by rail, with another small lot that was going, and I started James off with them. He took the west road, and down Guntawang way a big farmer who saw James with the sheep (and who was speculating, or adding to his stock, or took a fancy to the wool) offered James as much for them as he reckoned I’d get in Sydney, after paying the carriage and the agents and the auctioneer. James put the sheep in a paddock and rode back to me. He was all there where riding was concerned. I told him to let the sheep go. James made a Greener shot-gun, and got his saddle done up, out of that job.
I took up a couple more forty-acre blocks—one in James’s name, to encourage him with the fencing. There was a good slice of land in an angle between the range and the creek, farther down, which everybody thought belonged to Wall, the squatter, but Mary got an idea, and went to the local land office and found out that it was ’unoccupied Crown land’, and so I took it up on pastoral lease, and got a few more sheep—I’d saved some of the best-looking ewes from the last lot.
One evening—I was going down next day for a load of fencing-wire for myself—Mary said,—
‘Joe! do you know that the Matthews have got a new double buggy?’
The Matthews were a big family of cockatoos, along up the main road, and I didn’t think much of them. The sons were all ‘bad-eggs’, though the old woman and girls were right enough.
‘Well, what of that?’ I said. ‘They’re up to their neck in debt, and camping like black-fellows in a big bark humpy. They do well to go flashing round in a double buggy.’
‘But that isn’t what I was going to say,’ said Mary. ‘They want to sell their old single buggy, James says. I’m sure you could get it for six or seven pounds; and you could have it done up.’
‘I wish James to the devil!’ I said. ‘Can’t he find anything better to do than ride round after cock-and-bull yarns about buggies?’
‘Well,’ said Mary, ‘it was James who got the steers and the sheep.’
Well, one word led to another, and we said things we didn’t mean— but couldn’t forget in a hurry. I remember I said something about Mary always dragging me back just when I was getting my head above water and struggling to make a home for her and the children; and that hurt her, and she spoke of the ‘homes’ she’d had since she was married. And that cut me deep.
It was about the worst quarrel we had. When she began to cry I got my hat and went out and walked up and down by the creek. I hated anything that looked like injustice—I was so sensitive about it that it made me unjust sometimes. I tried to think I was right, but I couldn’t—it wouldn’t have made me feel any better if I could have thought so. I got thinking of Mary’s first year on the selection and the life she’d had since we were married.
When I went in she’d cried herself to sleep. I bent over and, ‘Mary,’ I whispered.
She seemed to wake up.
‘Joe—Joe!’ she said.
‘What is it Mary?’ I said.
‘I’m pretty well sure that old Spot’s calf isn’t in the pen. Make James go at once!’
Old Spot’s last calf was two years old now; so Mary was talking in her sleep, and dreaming she was back in her first year.
We both laughed when I told her about it afterwards; but I didn’t feel like laughing just then.
Later on in the night she called out in her sleep,—
‘Joe—Joe! Put that buggy in the shed, or the sun will blister the varnish!’
I wish I could say that that was the last time I ever spoke unkindly to Mary.
Next morning I got up early and fried the bacon and made the tea, and took Mary’s breakfast in to her—like I used to do, sometimes, when we were first married. She didn’t say anything— just pulled my head down and kissed me.
When I was ready to start Mary said,—
‘You’d better take the spring-cart in behind the dray and get the tyres cut and set. They’re ready to drop off, and James has been wedging them up till he’s tired of it. The last time I was out with the children I had to knock one of them back with a stone: there’ll be an accident yet.’
So I lashed the shafts of the cart under the tail of the waggon, and mean and ridiculous enough the cart looked, going along that way. It suggested a man stooping along handcuffed, with his arms held out and down in front of him.
It was dull weather, and the scrubs looked extra dreary and endless— and I got thinking of old things. Everything was going all right with me, but that didn’t keep me from brooding sometimes—trying to hatch out stones, like an old hen we had at home. I think, taking it all round, I used to be happier when I was mostly hard-up—and more generous. When I had ten pounds I was more likely to listen to a chap who said, ‘Lend me a pound-note, Joe,’ than when I had fifty; then I fought shy of careless chaps—and lost mates that I wanted afterwards— and got the name of being mean. When I got a good cheque I’d be as miserable as a miser over the first ten pounds I spent; but when I got down to the last I’d buy things for the house. And now that I was getting on, I hated to spend a pound on anything. But then, the farther I got away from poverty the greater the fear I had of it—and, besides, there was always before us all the thought of the terrible drought, with blazing runs as bare and dusty as the road, and dead stock rotting every yard, all along the barren creeks.
I had a long yarn with Mary’s sister and her husband that night in Gulgong, and it brightened me up. I had a fancy that that sort of a brother-in-law made a better mate than a nearer one; Tom Tarrant had one, and he said it was sympathy. But while we were yarning I couldn’t help thinking of Mary, out there in the hut on the Creek, with no one to talk to but the children, or James, who was sulky at home, or Black Mary or Black Jimmy (our black boy’s father and mother), who weren’t oversentimental. Or maybe a selector’s wife (the nearest was five miles away), who could talk only of two or three things— ‘lambin’’ and ‘shearin’’ and ‘cookin’ for the men’, and what she said to her old man, and what he said to her—and her own ailments— over and over again.
It’s a wonder it didn’t drive Mary mad!—I know I could never listen to that woman more than an hour. Mary’s sister said,—
‘Now if Mary had a comfortable buggy, she could drive in with the children oftener. Then she wouldn’t feel the loneliness so much.’
I said ‘Good night’ then and turned in. There was no getting away from that buggy. Whenever Mary’s sister started hinting about a buggy, I reckoned it was a put-up job between them.