The track skirted a chain of rocky waterholes at the foot of the gully, and the girl glanced nervously at these ghastly, evil-looking pools as she passed them by. The sun had set, as far as Long Gully was concerned. The old horse carefully followed a rough bridle track, which ran up the gully now on one side of the watercourse and now on the other; the gully grew deeper and darker, and its sullen, scrub-covered sides rose more steeply as he progressed.
The girl glanced round frequently, as though afraid of someone following her. Once she drew rein, and listened to some bush sound. “Kangaroos,” she murmured; it was only kangaroos. She crossed a dimmed little clearing where a farm had been, and entered a thick scrub of box and stringy-bark saplings. Suddenly with a heavy thud, thud, an “old man” kangaroo leapt the path in front, startling the girl fearfully, and went up the siding towards the peak.
“Oh, my God!” she gasped, with her hand on her heart.
She was very nervous this evening; her heart was hurt now, and she held her hand close to it, while tears started from her eyes and glistened in the light of the moon, which was rising over the gap ahead.
“Oh, if I could only go away from the bush!” she moaned.
The old horse plodded on, and now and then shook his head —sadly, it seemed—as if he knew her troubles and was sorry.
She passed another clearing, and presently came to a small homestead in a stringy-bark hollow below a great gap in the ridges—“Deadman’s Gap”. The place was called “Deadman’s Hollow”, and looked like it. The “house”—a low, two-roomed affair, with skillions— was built of half-round slabs and stringy-bark, and was nearly all roof; the bark, being darkened from recent rain, gave it a drearier appearance than usual.
A big, coarse-looking youth of about twenty was nailing a green kangaroo skin to the slabs; he was out of temper because he had bruised his thumb. The girl unstrapped the parcels and carried them in; as she passed her brother, she said:
“Take the saddle off for me, will you, Jack?”
“Oh, carnt yer take it off yerself?” he snarled; “carnt yer see I’m busy?”
She took off the saddle and bridle, and carried them into a shed, where she hung them on a beam. The patient old hack shook himself with an energy that seemed ill-advised, considering his age and condition, and went off towards the “dam”.
An old woman sat in the main room beside a fireplace which took up almost the entire end of the house. A plank-table, supported on stakes driven into the ground, stood in the middle of the room, and two slab benches were fixtures on each side. The floor was clay. All was clean and poverty-stricken; all that could be whitewashed was white, and everything that could be washed was scrubbed. The slab shelves were covered with clean newspapers, on which bright tins, and pannikins, and fragments of crockery were set to the greatest advantage. The walls, however, were disfigured by Christmas supplements of illustrated journals.
The girl came in and sat down wearily on a stool opposite to the old woman.
“Are you any better, mother?” she asked.
“Very little, Mary, very little. Have you seen your father?”
“I wonder where he is?”
“You might wonder. What’s the use of worrying about it, mother?”
“I suppose he’s drinking again.”
“Most likely. Worrying yourself to death won’t help it!”
The old woman sat and moaned about her troubles, as old women do. She had plenty to moan about.
“I wonder where your brother Tom is? We haven’t heard from him for a year now. He must be in trouble again; something tells me he must be in trouble again.”
Mary swung her hood off into her lap.
“Why do you worry about it, mother? What’s the use?”
“I only wish I knew. I only wish I knew!”
“What good would that do? You know Tom went droving with Fred Dunn, and Fred will look after him; and, besides, Tom’s older now and got more sense.”
“Oh, you don’t care—you don’t care! You don’t feel it, but I’m his mother, and——”
“Oh, for God’s sake, don’t start that again, mother; it hurts me more than you think. I’m his sister; I’ve suffered enough, God knows! Don’t make matters worse than they are!”
“Here comes father!” shouted one of the children outside, “’n’ he’s bringing home a steer.”
The old woman sat still, and clasped her hands nervously. Mary tried to look cheerful, and moved the saucepan on the fire. A big, dark-bearded man, mounted on a small horse, was seen in the twilight driving a steer towards the cow-yard. A boy ran to let down the slip-rails.
Presently Mary and her mother heard the clatter of rails let down and put up again, and a minute later a heavy step like the tread of a horse was heard outside. The selector lumbered in, threw his hat in a corner, and sat down by the table. His wife rose and bustled round with simulated cheerfulness. Presently Mary hazarded—
“Where have you been, father?”
There was a wretched silence, lasting until the old woman took courage to say timidly:
“So you’ve brought a steer, Wylie?”
“Yes!” he snapped; the tone seemed defiant.
The old woman’s hands trembled, so that she dropped a cup. Mary turned a shade paler.
“Here, git me some tea. Git me some TEA!” shouted Mr. Wylie. “I ain’t agoin’ to sit here all night!”
His wife made what haste her nervousness would allow, and they soon sat down to tea. Jack, the eldest son, was sulky, and his father muttered something about knocking the sulks out of him with an axe.
“What’s annoyed you, Jack?” asked his mother, humbly.
He scowled and made no answer.
The younger children—three boys and a girl—began quarrelling as soon as they sat down. Wylie yelled at them now and then, and grumbled at the cooking, and at his wife for not being able to keep the children quiet. It was: “Marther! you didn’t put no sugar in my tea.” “Mother, Jimmy’s got my place; make him move.” “Mawther! do speak to this Fred.” “Oh! father, this big brute of a Harry’s kickin’ me!” And so on.