This section is from the book "Robbery Under Arms; A Story Of Life And Adventure In The Bush And In The Australian Goldfields", by Rolf Boldrewood. Also available from Amazon: Robbery under Arms; a story of life and adventure in the bush and in the Australian goldfields.
When we came in at night old mother used to look that pleased and happy we couldn't help feeling better in our hearts. Aileen used to read something out of the paper that she thought might amuse us. I could read pretty fair, and so could Jim; but we were both lazy at it, and after working pretty hard all day didn't so much care about spelling out the long words in the farming news or the stories they put in. All the same, it would have paid us better if we'd read a little more and put the 'bullocking' on one side, at odd times. A man can learn as much out of a book or a paper sometimes in an hour as will save his work for a week, or put him up to working to better purpose. I can see that now -- too late, and more's the pity.
Anyhow, Aileen could read pretty near as fast as any one I ever saw, and she used to reel it out for us, as we sat smoking over the fire, in a way that kept us jolly and laughing till it was nearly turning-in time. Now and then George Storefield would come and stay an hour or two. He could read well; nearly as well as she could. Then he had always something to show her that she'd been asking about. His place was eight miles off, but he'd always get his horse and go home, whatever the night was like.
'I must be at my work in the morning,' he'd say; 'it's more than half a day gone if you lose that, and I've no half-days to spare, or quarter-days either.'
So we all got on first-rate, and anybody would have thought that there wasn't a more steady-going, hard-working, happy family in the colony. No more there wasn't, while it lasted. After all, what is there that's half as good as being all right and square, working hard for the food you eat, and the sleep you enjoy, able to look all the world in the face, and afraid of nothing and nobody!
We were so quiet and comfortable till the winter was over and the spring coming on, till about September, that I almost began to believe we'd never done anything in our lives we could be made to suffer for.
Now and then, of course, I used to wake up in the night, and my thoughts would go back to 'Terrible Hollow', that wonderful place; and one night with the unbranded cattle, and Starlight, with the blood dripping on to his horse's shoulder, and the half-caste, with his hawk's eye and glittering teeth -- father, with his gloomy face and dark words. I wondered whether it was all a dream; whether I and Jim had been in at all; whether any of the 'cross-work' had been found out; and, if so, what would be done to me and Jim; most of all, though, whether father and Starlight were away after some 'big touch'; and, if so, where and what it was, and how soon we should hear of it.
As for Jim, he was one of those happy-go-lucky fellows that didn't bother himself about anything he didn't see or run against. I don't think it ever troubled him. It was the only bad thing he'd ever been in. He'd been drawn in against his will, and I think he had made up his mind -- pretty nearly -- not to go in for any more.
I have often seen Aileen talking to him, and they'd walk along in the evening when the work was done -- he with his arm round her waist, and she looking at him with that quiet, pleased face of hers, seeming so proud and fond of him, as if he'd been the little chap she used to lead about and put on the old pony, and bring into the calf-pen when she was milking. I remember he had a fight with a little bull-calf, about a week old, that came in with a wild heifer, and Aileen made as much of his pluck as if it had been a mallee scrubber. The calf baaed and butted at Jim, as even the youngest of them will, if they've the wild blood in 'em, and nearly upset him; he was only a bit of a toddler. But Jim picked up a loose leg of a milking-stool, and the two went at it hammer and tongs. I could hardly stand for laughing, till the calf gave him best and walked.
Aileen pulled him out, and carried him in to mother, telling her that he was the bravest little chap in the world; and I remember I got scolded for not going to help him. How these little things come back!
'I'm beginning to be afraid,' says George, one evening, 'that it's going to be a dry season.'
'There's plenty of time yet,' says Jim, who always took the bright side of things; 'it might rain towards the end of the month.'
'I was thinking the same thing,' I said. 'We haven't had any rain to speak of for a couple of months, and that bit of wheat of ours is beginning to go back. The oats look better.'
'Now I think of it,' put in Jim, 'Dick Dawson came in from outside, and he said things are shocking bad; all the frontage bare already, and the water drying up.'
'It's always the way,' I said, bitter-like. 'As soon as a poor man's got a chance of a decent crop, the season turns against him or prices go down, so that he never gets a chance.'
'It's as bad for the rich man, isn't it?' said George. 'It's God's will, and we can't make or mend things by complaining.'
'I don't know so much about that,' I said sullenly. 'But it's not as bad for the rich man. Even if the squatters suffer by a drought and lose their stock, they've more stock and money in the bank, or else credit to fall back on; while the like of us lose all we have in the world, and no one would lend us a pound afterwards to save our lives.'
'It's not quite so bad as that,' said George. 'I shall lose my year's work unless rain comes, and most of the cattle and horses besides; but I shall be able to get a few pounds to go on with, however the season goes.'
'Oh! if you like to bow and scrape to rich people, well and good,' I said; 'but that's not my way. We have as good a right to our share of the land and some other good things as they have, and why should we be done out of it?'
'If we pay for the land as they do, certainly,' said George.
'But why should we pay? God Almighty, I suppose, made the land and the people too, one to live on the other. Why should we pay for what is our own? I believe in getting my share somehow.'
'That's a sort of argument that doesn't come out right,' said George. 'How would you like another man to come and want to halve the farm with you?'
'I shouldn't mind; I should go halves with some one else who had a bigger one,' I said. 'More money too, more horses, more sheep, a bigger house! Why should he have it and not me?'
'That's a lazy man's argument, and -- well, not an honest man's,' said George, getting up and putting on his cabbage-tree. 'I can't sit and hear you talk such rot. Nobody can work better than you and Jim, when you like. I wonder you don't leave such talk to fellows like Frowser, that's always spouting at the Shearers' Arms.'
'Nonsense or not, if a dry season comes and knocks all our work over, I shall help myself to some one's stuff that has more than he knows what to do with.'
'Why can't we all go shearing, and make as much as will keep us for six months?' said George. 'I don't know what we'd do without the squatters.'
'Nor I either; more ways than one; but Jim and I are going shearing next week. So perhaps there won't be any need for "duffing" after all.'
'Oh, Dick!' said Aileen, 'I can't bear to hear you make a joke of that kind of thing. Don't we all know what it leads to! Wouldn't it be better to live on dry bread and be honest than to be full of money and never know the day when you'd be dragged to gaol?'
'I've heard all that before; but ain't there lots of people that have made their money by all sorts of villainy, that look as well as the best, and never see a gaol?'
'They're always caught some day,' says poor Aileen, sobbing, 'and what a dreadful life of anxiety they must lead!'
'Not at all,' I said. 'Look at Lucksly, Squeezer, and Frying-pan Jack. Everybody knows how they got their stock and their money. See how they live. They've got stations, and public-house and town property, and they get richer every year. I don't think it pays to be too honest in a dry country.'
'You're a naughty boy, Dick; isn't he, Jim?' she said, smiling through her tears. 'But he doesn't mean half what he says, does he?'
'Not he,' says Jim; 'and very likely we'll have lots of rain after all.'