THE SELECTION where I was reared was a queer place twenty-five years ago; it was a queer place twenty-five months ago. A selection in Queensland twenty-five years ago was a weird, wild institution, hidden away in the bowels of the great, sleepy bush. It consisted for the most part of one hundred and sixty acres, with some scrub and stones and a slab humpy, and a small stockyard, where the fowls, when they were at home, used to roost. There were no fences on selections twenty-five years ago; they weren’t required then. There was nothing except grass to put them round, and people in those days were rarely ever jealous of their grass. They all had lots of grass—that was all they did have lots of, save freedom and wild honey and good exercise, twenty-five years ago. The selection where I was reared was a beaatiful place. It was a picture—a grand work of art. It was one of the eyes of the country—so father used to tell us; and I suppose that was why he picked it out. A quiet, secluded spot it was, with a great wall of mountains banked up all round it, and I remember how it used to attract strangers. Even travellers who had lost their way used to visit it. They would call on us and stay for hours—stay till father could find time to show them a track by which they could climb out again without falling down a precipice and breaking their necks.
“We were lucky to get this place,” father used to say when sometimes he would be sitting down reflecting in rhe shade after felling a tree for honey, “and so near the river, too. Ah, yes, we were near the river; it was only seven miles away, and from the top of the mountains, whenever you had energy and wind enough to climb them, you could see it bending silently along in the dim distance.
“I don’t like that tree there,” father said one Christmas day, viewing a big ironbark that grew close beside the humpy. “It doesn’t improve the place at all, and I believe it attracts the rain.”
Mother didn’t like the tree, either. It had always been a worry and an eyesore to her. She said she was afraid it might get blown down some day, and perhaps fall on the house and hurt us.
“Let me see,” father said, walking round the iron-bark, axe in hand, and in a scientific sort of way looking along the trunk to see which way it was leaning. “It’ll go that way,” he concluded, and pointed towards the stockyard. Then he spat on his hands, and, swinging the axe vigorously, commenced to chop it down. Father was a fine axeman twenty-five years ago. He made the chips fly round him in showers for about an hour, and when he had chopped half-way through the trunk, mother called him to dinner. Mother was always calling us to dinner twenty-five years ago!
“We’ll leave it for a bit,” father grunted, wiping the perspiration from his face with the sleeve of his shirt; then he came inside and took the head of the table.
We had two scrub turkeys and a wonga pigeon for dinner that Christmas. (The Christmas before we had only one and a damper. ) In the middle of the meal the wind sprang up. The wind was always springing up in the middle of something or other twenty-five years ago.
“That’s a grand breeze,” father said, looking through the window. Father was fond of a good breeze twenty-five years ago.
“Beautiful!” mother answered. “Beautiful!”
The breeze increased until it was blowing hard; and just when father was standing up to carve more turkey for himself, we heard a loud creak outside and a “swishing” sound through the air.
“The tree!” father gasped, looking at us. Then all at once the roof of the humpy came down with a great crash on top of us, and flattened us all out on the floor. And everything became dark. Ah, yes, we got a good many surprises one way and another twenty-five years ago. Mother and I, after a lot of excitement and struggling, worked our way out from under the heap of debris, and when we shook ourselves free and looked round, what a wreck the humpy was! There was no humpy at all then on the selection where I was reared, twenty-five years ago!
There was nothing but a pile of green leaves and broken limbs. We couldn’t see anything of father, either, or even get any sort of answer from him when we called. And how mother went on! Ah, it was terrible to hear her crying and calling on the Almighty for help! But after a while we thought of the axe, and set to work to cut our way to father and get him out. And it was a long way to him, too. But he wasn’t dead when we reached him—he was alive.
He rolled about and groaned heavily when we dragged him to the light. And when we turned him over he had the turkey still with him. It took a lot to separate father from a turkey twenty-five years ago. It was clinging to his chest like a mustard poultice, and some of the bones were sticking in him.
Ah, it was a miserable dinner we had that Christmas at the selection where I was reared, twenty-five years ago!
It was three months before father could do a hand’s turn again, and it was hard work we had curing him. Mother cured everything, except bacon, with goanna oil at the selection where I was reared, twenty-five years ago.
And father had scarcely recovered when he went down to the river to cook for some pear-cutters, and met with another accident. It was nothing but accidents at the selection where I was reared, twenty-five years ago. Twelve men father was cooking for—twelve big, hungry men—and one evening he took a couple of buckets, and went to a hole beneath the bridge that spanned the river to get water for the tea. A thousand head of Tyson’s cattle, bound for New South Wales, were approaching the bridge, and father stood to watch them cross it. Father was fond of standing and looking at cattle, twenty-five years ago. Cattle was his ambition then. He always longed to own a mob of cattle like Tyson’s. A drover rode in front to show the cattle the way; some more rode on each side, crooning “Werp, werp! “and “Whoa there!” (That’s how they used to drove all the cattle twenty-five years ago), while others at the tail end held back to allow the brutes time to cross without crushing on the bridge.
A wild-eyed, hollow-sided bullock, with spear horns, caught sight of father’s beard—father had a fine red beard, twenty-five years ago. It covered all his chest, and reached right to his belt. And he wore his belt a long way down, twenty-five years ago. And with a snort the bullock shied off, and started the mob ringing. The men on the wings became anxious, and shouted, “Whoa there!” and swung their whips and called to father to “get out of the d road!” But it was a Government road, and father wouldn’t get out of it. He remained rigid, and every now and again a fresh beast would take fright at him, and more rushing and ringing would set in. The drover in the lead cantered back, and shook his stockwhip threateningly over father’s head, and called him a hairy lunatic. Father never could suffer being called a lunatic twenty-five years ago, and bellowed bad language at the drover, and put his fingers to his nose. The drover reached down from his horse and pulled a fistful of father’s beard out, then wheeled round and galloped after the startled cattle. Father never could stand his whiskers being pulled twenty-five years ago, and became furious, and ran after the drover for about fifty yards; then stopped and swore and shook his fist. Father wasn’t a man to be meddled with lightly twenty-five years ago; and while he was swearing his eye rested on a spare horse fastened by a halter to the drover’s camp which was pitched on the river bank. Father rushed over and mounted that horse bare-back, and pursued the drover. Father was not an accomplished horseman twenty-five years ago. He wasn’t an accomplished horseman two years ago. He didn’t get much riding to do at the selection where I was reared; but he would do anything on a horse when his blood was up; and his blood was up now.
And the men had just steadied the mob when father sailed round the wing, and charged at the drover who had assaulted him. But father had not calculated everything correctly. He had left the drover out of the account. The drover saw him coming, and met him with the stockwhip, which he brought down heavily on father’s head and shoulders, till pieces flew out of father’s beard and the cracks echoed among the pear and along the river banks. And drovers knew how to use a whip, too, twenty-five years ago! The whip descended on the horse, and the animal, with more presence of mind than father, turned and bolted. The drover followed. He pursued father through the cattle and over fallen timber and prickly-pear, flogging the horse on the rump all the time. The brute switched its tail and wriggled in its stride, and strained every muscle to escape. But it couldn’t escape. The drover was better mounted than father, and forced him to take everything in front of him in steeplechase fashion, and father, with only the halter-rein to steer a course with, had to cling like an orangoutang to keep on the back of his mount. And they raced right into the pear-cutters’ camp, and dashed between the tents, and the dog that was there broke loose and chased father, too. Dogs would do anything twenty-five years ago.
Father charged at the staring pear-cutters, and all of them threw down their hoes and separated to let him through. But father didn’t go through. His horse rose high in the air to clear some more pear, and they separated. Ah! it was a terrible fall that father got! And that drover went away laughing. Drovers had no feelings at the selection where I was reared, twenty-five years ago.
The pear-cutters brought father home next day on a sheet of bark, and for months we rubbed his back again with goanna oil. Ah, it was a touch-and-go with father that time; but he got over it. He is not the man now, though, that he was on the selection where I was reared, twenty-five years ago.