MIDWINTER. A bitter cold day. A westerly wind sweeping the frost-bitten plains of Southern Queensland, driving great balls of roly-poly grass before it, rolling it into creeks, filling every gully and opening in the ground with it, banking it up in great brown walls, miles in length, against the fences and railway line.
On the. edge of the sparse and stunted timber nestled a miniature township of weird, weather-worn calico tents; down on the plain a hundred men engaged clearing prickly pear—belting and bruising the pest with long-handled hoes, and gathering it into heaps with forks. They might just as well have been bailing water out of the bay with billy-cans, for all the good they were doing. The terrible cactus had well-nigh taken possession of the land. In less than fifty years it had spread over thousands of miles of country, covering meadow and mountain, growing luxuriantly out of wood and brigalow, choking the few water-holes that remained, blocking every roadway, obliterating the land marks of the men who “blazed the track” and camping grounds of the first inhabitants, and holding in its grip tracts upon tracts of pasture land which once might easily have been saved and preserved for occupation by millions of prosperous people.
The hundred men were from the city—they were a portion of the unemployed—and a sad and sorry galaxy they were. Men of all classes and callings comprised their number; men retrenched from the ranks of the Civil Service to save the country from bleeding; men who had lost fortunes in the terrible drought; men who never had any fortunes to lose; and men whose fortunes, like their future, were all before them. Ferguson and Merton were among the latter.
Ah, but it was hard on those city men, slaving amongst that wretched pear! Hack! Hack! Slog! Slog! the whole day long. Slashing at the masses of thick leaves, tramping among the thorns, poking and delving round the great bunches of crimson-fruited rubbish to get at its roots. And such roots! Like a network of scrub vines they lay concealed under ground and running in every direction for forty yards and more. And tracing the tangled meshes and tearing them from the soil was the devil itself. Whenever the men’s hands or their trouser legs or shirt sleeves came in contact with the accursed stuff, clusters of prickles clung tenaciously and worked their way through the clothing into the flesh, and sores and festers and general misery resulted. To touch the pest with bare hands was out of the question. It was alive with prickles. The men’s very boots and leggings—when they had any of the latter—became smothered with and were penetrated by the prickles. And even the hoe handles from one end to the other were coated with the jags till the hardest and horniest hand there could hardly hold the implement. Ah, there was no joy working amongst that pear! It was not a privilege for an Australian to be proud of. There was neither sport nor poetry in it. It was fearful, heartbreaking employment; a painful and useless occupation, but it gave the Government an excuse to pay wages to the unfortunate men.
The pear, too, was the home of all the vermin on earth. At the sound of the hoes, numerous rats and bandicoots and hares would dart into the open and scamper for dear life. And at regular intervals great lurking reptiles would cause commotion among the men and fill their souls with fear and apprehension.
Cutting that pear made a great change in Ferguson and Merton. In slouch hats and torn shirts and soiled moleskin trousers, no one from the city would ever have recognised them.
“How are y’ hands, Freddy?” Merton sometimes would ask, leaning on his hoe and looking at his friend.
And Ferguson would pause and hold up both palms, displaying blisters that looked like poached eggs. Then he’d glance furtively back over the halfmile or so of “cleared” land, dotted with numerous peaks of the gathered pear standing out like small lucerne stacks, and at the vast expanse of horror stretching before them; and, lifting the hoe, would go on again. Of whatever “light” or “shade” or “perspective” there might have been in the picture presented about him, Ferguson never spoke. Ferguson never discoursed on art at all now; not even for sunsets—and the sun went down every evening on the pear—had he any admiration. But Merton was different to Ferguson. Merton had more to say now than he had when he was in the city, and he had been a prominent member of a debating class there. He spoke in plainer terms, too, and with more force, and his vocabulary seemed to be greatly enlarged.
“It’s a cruel —— thing, this,” he would say, glaring at the pear, when the overseer wasn’t present. “A cursed —— —— of a game, Freddy! —— —— it! I wouldn’t ask a mangy Chow or a —— nigger to tackle it!”
Ferguson, though, would never encourage Merton to blaspheme or rebel against his fate.
“Never mind, Magnus, old chap,” he would answer consolingly; “try and put up with it a while.”
Ferguson was a good young man, with a heart full of hope and a lot of faith in Providence.
Sometimes a casual selector would happen along, and, sitting carelessly on his hairy cart-horse, would shake his head like an unbeliever and grin weirdly at the men “exterminating” the pear.
Old Kiley rode up one day and inspected the “cleared” patch, where young pear was growing again like a field of transplanted cabbage; then approached the nearest gang of men.
“It’s fine fun yer havin’ here,” he said flippantly.
“It’s —— fine fun,” Merton answered, looking up savagely.
The other men chuckled in a grim, sore sort of way.
“When d’ yiz expee’ to complate th’ job?” Kiley asked satirically, gazing across the expanse of thriving rubbish that lay hundreds of miles ahead.
“Maybe in a fortnight,” Merton replied ironically, “maybe in a —— ——.”
“Well, yiz had betther hurry up,” Kiley broke out cheerfully; “fur ’tis comin’ up like th’ divvle beyant there, an’ if it overtakes y’ yiz’ll niwer git out iv it.” And the old selector rode away.
And when the men knocked off at night and went to their tents for supper, there was no conviviality or rejoicing of any kind amongst them. There was no music—no merriment around their camp-fire. It was then that the poison began to find them out and to work in. And until it was time to “turn in,” the men mostly sat swearing and searching every stitch of clothing they had for prickles, and picking them out; and in turn they extracted them with tweezers from the arms and necks and backs of each other. But that wasn’t the worst; for, exercise what care they would, the wretched prickles found their way into every blanket in the tent, and robbed the men of their sleep. And more groans and profanity were heard through the hours of the night than sounds of peaceful slumber.
“Ah, it was purgatory those days, Freddy,” Merton often says now, when he thinks of the prickly pear.