‘All these months? I don't understand why you didn't tell me.’ Hamlet was more hurt than angry. ‘I know you were worried what I would think of having Michael Kearns close by but to go there without telling me? How could you?’
‘I'm sorry, Hamlet, truly I am. I was afraid of what you might do. And I was very concerned for Norah. I felt so torn. I've hated lying to you. I'll not do it again, sure, I promise you that.’ Kathryn’s face was repentant.
Hamlet pulled her to his chest. ‘Ah, my love. I know you’re trying to protect me. I'm just sorry you couldn't trust me enough to risk telling me. I don't want that between us so let's make sure we don't repeat such a thing.’
Kathryn nodded her relief and pressed back into him. ‘So you won't forbid me to go and see Norah?’
‘Clearly you're not going to be kept from your friend, and I don't want to come between you. I know what happened was none of her doing.’
His face was still strained but Kathryn could see he was softening.
‘I don't want anything to do with Michael Kearns but as long as you're careful when you're travelling there…with the children, which I suppose is how it will be now that it's out in the open.’
Just before Christmas, Kathryn proudly picked buckets of plums, apricots and nectarines from their trees.
‘Tis a good sign, is it not?’ she said to Hamlet, showing him the fruit.
‘Yes, but you have to promise me you'll leave the picking to James now for the rest of the season. I don't want anything going wrong with this new baby of ours.’ Hamlet's voice was soft but full of concern.
‘I will,’ she said. ‘But you've more than enough to do with the gardens and getting the new fences and sheds for the animals.’
‘I'll manage. Besides, James is nearly nine. Time he got used to working the place. It'll be his one day…his and Johnny's…and whatever other brothers he has. I want him to take pride in it.’
‘I hope so too but what makes you think that there'll be other brothers, eh? What if this one's another girl?’ Kathryn's mind went back to Michael Kearns's words and although she wouldn't dream of mentioning his name, she was still irked at the thought of his attitude to Norah's baby girl.
‘I'll adore her of course,’ Hamlet said sincerely, putting her mind at rest. ‘And if there's no more boys, then James and Johnny will share the responsibility of this place. I want to build it up, perhaps get more paddocks when we can afford the extra lease.’
Kathryn kissed him lightly on the cheek and nodded. When she thought about what Norah was suffering with Michael, she was very thankful for Hamlet. She knew that he would struggle with her visiting Norah because it might mean him coming into contact with Michael and yet, he was being gracious for her sake. She could only pray that Michael had at least enough decency to stay away from her husband.
Whatever his father might think about the Pollards visiting, young Tom Kearns was thrilled to see James, Johnny, and Mary Ann arrive with their mother a few weeks later. Rebecca made it plain she was not interested in playing and disappeared into the bush on her own.
‘She's her Pa all over, I'm afraid,’ Norah apologised. ‘Bright as a button when it suits her but generally not a good temperament, and I'm afraid I've spoiled her.’
‘Tis fine, Norah. The boys are getting along so well and Mary Ann's used to playing with boys.
's only two so there's five years difference in our girls. Poor little thing tries to keep up with the others but Mary Ann mothers her more than plays.’ Kathryn laughed lightly, enjoying Norah's company. ‘And where is Michael today?’ she ventured, sensing her friend was a little edgy. Elizabeth
‘Oh, he's off… in
likely.’ Norah's offhanded tone was not convincing. ‘He misses his evenings at the pub with other men. I guess it's natural enough. Tis a good twenty miles though so he stays over and… actually, I'm never sure what he's up to, to be honest, Kathryn. I've learned not to ask too many questions. He'll be back when he's ready. It accounts for some of Rebecca's moods, for she misses him. Or perhaps she'd just like to be off with him, for she's not easily settled in to farm life either.’ Norah sighed and rocked baby Mary in her arms. Bathurst
‘Is he still disappointed the baby was not a boy?’ Kathryn reached out and stroked the sleeping child's face.
‘Perhaps. He was so chuffed when Tom was born, so much so that Rebecca was quite jealous, but he seems to have lost interest since we lost little Michael out on the gold fields. I wonder sometimes if he blames me...’ Norah was quiet for a few moments before she went on. ‘No, I think Michael would be like this regardless. He's always come and gone. It's his way.’
‘You're very accepting of his way, Norah. He really should be taking a bit more responsibility.’ Kathryn stopped abruptly. ‘I'm sorry. Tis none of my business, sure it's not. It's just I worry for you, here alone with the children. Tis not easy, farm life. It takes a strong back and determination to make it work. And you can't be doing too much, what with the little one here taking all your strength.’
‘Michael will be back, sure he will. He's only been away a day or two. He's likely finding Christmas presents for the children. You're not to worry about us, sure you're not.’ Norah didn't sound convincing and seemed relieved when little Mary stirred and she could busy herself with feeding the infant.
When Christmas came and went with no word from Michael, Norah had to accept that he had not gone to buy presents. Not that he had any money when he left, although that had not prevented him from getting what he wanted in the past. Fortunately, Mary was a contented baby and Norah was able to tend the garden with the infant strapped to her back or lying happily in the grass by the rows of lettuce and beans. Tom had mastered milking the cow and feeding the pigs and Rebecca had accepted the job of looking after the chickens, even if somewhat reluctantly, so Norah found they could manage the daily routines that kept them eating and clean. As long as there were no major repairs needing to the hut, she determined not to be bothered by Michael's absence. She would deal with him when he returned, for she had no doubt he would. And because she could not anticipate what he was up to, she put it out of her mind and concentrated on the daily round of work and the pleasure of hearing the birds singing in the trees above their roof, of walks to the river bank, the profusion of colour in the shrubs around them and the twinkling of the starry skies of an evening when she would sit near the back door and sing softly to Mary after feeding her.
Late in January, Norah heard the rattle of a cart approaching the hut and was not surprised to see her husband perched on the front board, urging the horse towards the back yard.
‘So you've not forgotten where you live, then?’ she remarked quietly when he entered the hut. She was amazed that he seemed not the slightest bit ashamed of his absence.
‘I'm not likely to be forgettin' me lovely wife an' children, now, am I?’ he chirped, as if he had been away for the afternoon. ‘Far from it, now, for haven't I been in danger of losin' me very life just so's I could bring 'ome what me family needs?’
Norah prepared herself for the long story she knew Michael would tell. How much of it would be fact and how much fiction, she could not be sure, but there was no escaping the tale, for he seemed to enjoy the telling as much as the living of it. She would save expressing her feelings until later, when they were alone.
Rebecca had rushed inside at the sight of her father and was hovering expectantly, awaiting the gifts she was sure would be produced from his deep coat pockets at some stage of the story. Tom had followed his sister inside but was hanging back, taking his cues from his mother, ready to condemn his father if he could get a word in and if his mother did not censure him.
‘You'll 'ave noticed the dray I arrived in, no doubt,’ Michael began with flourish, taking a seat by the rough table.
His manner told Norah he was expecting a cup of tea to be handed to him some time soon.
‘T'was left to me by a late friend,’ he continued. ‘Sad, sure it was, for we was doin' very well together.’ He paused for effect and when there was no sound from his family, he went on. ‘The fields 'ave turned into right British establishments, so they have. The soldiers 'ave taken over and tis a rare man who gets what 'e's worked for out there now. Sure, they've reduced the licence fee to ten shillings a month, an' so there's thousands of miners, all pushin' each other out o' the way for a spot. An' the Chinese of course, who are there in droves as well, an' most of 'em pickin' up nothin' at all. Some poor sods are wanderin' around in the bush, half mad, half starved. They're findin' em in holes, been dead for days, poor blighters.’
‘Did you find some gold, Pa?’ Rebecca seemed unable to contain herself, fearing that there would be no gifts.
Michael held up his hand to indicate she be quiet. ‘You'll 'ave to wait an' see, girl.’
Norah handed him a mug of steaming tea and sat down, baby Mary on her knee. Michael had taken no notice of his four-month-old daughter.
‘You'd 'ave to see it to believe it…the camps those Brits set up. There's the diggers in humpies with nothin' more than dirt floors, a bunk an' a blanket if they're lucky, an' then there's the Commissioner's tents; flagpole at the front, flyin' the bloody emblem of British rule, lettin' the poor miners know that whatever they find, the Brits will be 'avin' part of it. Twenty to thirty tents for the troupers, stables for their 'orses, their mess tent all lined an' floored with hard wood, with everythin' they'd want to make livin' easy. And what do they do, eh? They guard the gold, an' it has a tent of its own, sure enough. Kept in cedar boxes, it is. Everything the miners don't spend at the grog shop an' the general store on Saturdays, that is. And they do spend up. You can tell who's 'ad a find by who shouts the grog. An' they pay ten times what the grog's worth as well. Those makin' the money are the grog seller, sure enough.’ Michael laughed raucously at this, his memories of joining the throng at the bar obviously tickling his fancy.
‘The rest, they bring into the Commissioner's office in leather bags an' it's tucked away there to be escorted to
when there's a load. They get a receipt for it, so they can collect the money later, but poor fools lose it 'alf the time when they're drunk or someone steals it from 'em. And if that don't 'appen, it's likely the bushrangers will get the gold on the way to town. They don't 'alf make a show of when it's goin' either. All turned out to see it off like it's a parade. Ten or twelve troupers, pistols at their sides, pack horses weighed down, Commissioner in 'is finery; braided frock coat, shiny boots, fancy breeches an' a cap with gold lace.’ Bathurst
Michael stood and turned as he spoke, as if showing off the clothes he was describing. ‘They might as well tell the bushrangers right off where an' when they can pick it up.’ He shook his head, cackling again. ‘No wonder 'alf the miners are crazy. Even if they survive the dysentery or don't get murdered by another miner or eaten by the Chinese…they're still likely to die of starvation or fall, drunk into some 'ole at night. Tis a mad life, if you ask me.’
Norah sighed loudly. She was afraid Tom would erupt with some criticism of his father at any moment.
‘I thought we established the madness of it for ourselves,’ she said. ‘So why have you gone back?’
‘I'm gettin' to it, me luv. Sure, I'm gettin' to it. You've to see what I'd not be wastin' me time on and what I've 'ad to escape from in order to appreciate what it is that I've attained.’
Michael stuck out his chin defiantly, determined to work towards maximum effect with his story.
‘I've become a policeman, so I 'ave.’ He stood again and bowed. ‘Joined the side of law an' order, so to speak.’
There was stunned silence for a moment before Tom spoke.
‘You're a policeman!' he spluttered, his eyes widening.
Norah could see her son was digging deep within himself to find again the hope he once had, that his father would be someone he could look up to.
‘That's right, son.’ Michael puffed out his chest. ‘They 'ave to find policemen amongst the workin' class, these Brits, for when it comes down to the real work, the toffs can't do it, yer see. They use the blacks as well, for they're good trackers, but they don't 'ang ‘round for long…do a bit an' then 'ead off back to their tribes. An' besides, they're afeared of more things than we are. Like the big caves out along the
…huge they are…could hide many a bushranger an' 'is loot. The blacks think they're full of devils an' they won't go in. Even the man who found the caves a few years back named the big one at the front the Devil's Coach-house. Fish River
Michael waited, as if expecting gasps of wonder from his family. ‘Three ‘undred feet high an' as broad, so it is,’ he said, when no one made a sound. ‘But there's more than that. Tunnels leadin' into deep caverns, some you'd 'ave to crawl through, others you could ride a 'orse through. A perfect hidin' place it is…right pretty too, when you hold a lamp up to the sides. Anyway, we 'ad to chase a few bushrangers in there, an' the blacks wouldn't come…ran away callin' debbil-debbil, at the first squawk of a parrot.’
‘So did you catch the bushrangers?’ Tom was now drawn into the story.
‘Naw, just a few rock-wallabies. The thieves know the caves too well. But we chased 'em right up to the archway…let 'em know that we found their 'ideout.’
‘So will you be going after them again, Pa?’ Rebecca pushed her father, her eyes alight with excitement.
‘Perhaps, me luv. The troupers called it off for the time…called us back to chase up some local thieves near Sunny Corner who'd shot the poor wretch whose dray I've got.’
Norah's eyebrows arched.
‘Oh, I didn't take it from 'im, if that's what yer thinkin',’ he said, turning his nose up at her. ‘He was well an' truly dead when we caught up with the thieves. The blacks followed their trail, an' I said I'd get the poor sod buried and take care of 'is stuff, like. But when I got it back to camp, I was told 'e didn't 'ave any family out there. A few of the men buried 'im…said he was a fool to try an' take 'is own gold to town anyway. So there was nothin' for it but for me to bring it 'ome. The rewards of the job, so to speak. When opportunity knocks, ol' Michael is ready.’
He threw his head back and chuckled loudly. Then he pulled a chamois bag from his belt and laid it on the table. ‘Best part is…the thieves didn't get all 'is gold, did they now? This was still on 'is body. So I'll just keep it awhile before I take it into
He was grinning like a cheshire cat. Always more pleased by anything he could get away with than anything he might achieve by better means. Norah sighed as she watched Tom's shoulders slump. She knew he was too smart to be taken in by his father's twisted way of thinking.
‘And what about your job?’ she said, trying to maintain some hope.
‘What job? Oh, yer mean the police work? Well, that comes an' goes. They look for extras when there's a big search on. Then they round up the blacks an' anyone else who's willin' and able an' out we go. I'll pick up some more of that, sure I will…in time. There's big rewards bein' posted for some of these bushrangers, yer know. Some of 'em 'ave quite a reputation…like the one in Victoria by the name o' Frank McCallum, alias Captain Melville the Gentleman Bushranger.’
Michael said the last dramatically, trying to keep the attention of his son. ‘Been sentenced to over thirty years 'ard labour now. One of 'is fancy ladies dobbed 'im in at the end. There's some nasty ones on the loose though, some what would kill a man as soon as look at 'im. They deserve to be 'anged, they do, for as well as bein' cruel, they're stupid. Ridin' around brandishin' weapons. As obvious as the troupers 'emselves, so they are. Like to be seen, make people scared…not clever at all, if you ask me. Now a real clever thief can come an' go, take the loot an' never be noticed. That's a man to admire, sure it is. Don't need to ‘urt anybody if you're a clever thief. No one knows, an' in the end, no one cares too much, not around the gold fields, for there's plenty to go around…if you're smart that is. Most aren't, of course, so they're bound to lose the lot.’
‘I think you've said enough, Michael.’ Norah's voice was firm.
She shuffled Rebecca and Tom outside to finish their chores and picked Mary up from the floor. ‘Your daughter's over four months old, so she is, and you've hardly even held her. Why don't you give her a cuddle while I fix this stew?’ Her manner was cool and Michael was clearly deflated.
‘Come on, girl, give a man a bit o' credit. I've done good, 'aven't I? The dray out there is full of tools and camping equipment. It'll set me up for going back out…to get some more work, I mean, or maybe a reward or two. What more do you want?’
Norah rubbed her hands down her apron firmly, shaking her head. ‘You just don't understand, do you? I'll never feel right about the way you go about providing for us. It's just not right to take what belongs to others, whether they're dead or alive. And, sure, it seems to me you don't mind which. And what's more, you're needed around here.
She sat down again and looked deeply into his eyes. ‘You've come and gone all our years together, with mostly not so much as a goodbye. Your son has lost all respect for you and Rebecca, well, she's more like you, and that's a worry, sure it is. She gets so mad when you leave that she's unbearable. She resents you being able to go off and have your adventures and come back when it suits you. She's getting all the wrong ideas about what's important in life. When are you going to settle down? We could make something good of this farm for our family if you'd apply yourself to it.’
Norah stopped abruptly when she realised Michael was cooing at Mary and not taking any notice of her. She pushed back her chair, grabbed the large wooden spoon and stirred the stew over the stove roughly. She didn't let Michael see that she was gritting her teeth and holding back tears.
To be continued...