Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

Stoney Creek, November, 1853

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. Elizabeth'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.
     ‘Oh, he's off… in Bathurst 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.
     ‘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 Bathurst 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.’
     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 Fish River…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.
     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 Bathurst…eh?’
     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...

Carol Preston

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

None of us want to admit that we hate someone. When we deny our hate we detour around the crisis of forgiveness, we suppress our spite, make adjustments, and make believe we are too good to be hateful. But the truth is that we do not dare to risk admitting the hate we feel because we do not dare to risk forgiving the person we hate. Lewis Smedes.                                                    

Stoney Creek, May, 1853

James Pollard was eight years old now and he was trying not to be frightened. Beyond the door to the bedroom he could hear muffled voices. He was doing his best his best to keep his younger brother and sisters amused, for he knew something very bad was happening with his mother. He had thought by now that they would have another brother or sister. A few days ago his mother had told him it would be soon but when she called him yesterday and told him to get his father, she shrieked at him, which wasn't like her at all. He had known something was very wrong. Now his parents were in the next room, where they had been for hours. Old Mrs Foley was with them and kept shooing his Pa out. James had fed Johnny, Mary Ann and Elizabeth some soup, which had been bubbling on the stove when his mother's trouble had started. He had played as many games with them as he could think of and now he was getting really worried.
     The last time his father came out of the room, he carried a small bundle which James was sure had blood on it, even though his father tried to hide it. If his mother was bleeding, then it must be bad, for he remembered when he cut his foot just after Christmas, there had been a lot of blood and his mother had rushed him inside and bathed his foot in some stuff that stung a lot and then bound it up tight and made him sit for the rest of the afternoon with his leg on a chair. He had heard his mother crying earlier, so perhaps she had to have some of that stuff on her as well. He wished his father would come out again and tell him his mother was all right now because he was starting to feel sick in the stomach. 

‘It was too soon, Hamlet. I knew it was too soon but I couldn't stop it…I'm so sorry.’
Kathryn tried to push away the damp hair that was plastered around her forehead. It was hard to speak. Her mouth was dry and her lips felt like they were stuck together.
     ‘Shush now, luv,’ Hamlet said. ‘You just rest. What matters is that you get well.  I couldn't bear it if you –’
     ‘Don't you be talking like that.’ Kathryn pushed the words out. ‘I'll be fine in a few days, sure I will.’ She breathed in deeply. ‘It was a boy, wasn't it?’
     Hamlet didn't answer for a few moments and then he nodded his head slowly. ‘It was, but you're not to think about that now. I'll get you some broth.’
     Kathryn could see that his eyes were full as he rose. He turned towards the door, his hand slipping from hers as he moved away.
     A child conceived in such joy and so quickly leaving another space for mourning.  They were going to call him Hamlet. She closed her eyes and imagined her baby boy in the arms of an angel.
     ‘Not meant for this world, my darling child. I'll have to wait until the next life to see you, sure I will,’ she whispered to herself as she drifted into sleep. 

     Kathryn remained listless and sad through the cold, bleak winter but as Spring approached, the colour was back in her cheeks. They were feasting on fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden. Hamlet and James had caught eels in the creek, which she thought she could never eat but in fact found very tasty. Their chickens were laying plenty of eggs and the cow was resplendent with milk. Kathryn felt enlivened by the cascade of colours in the trees and shrubs around their cottage. Soft yellow and deep golden wattles were prolific on the property. Grevilleas burst into spidery flowers and dots of coloured wild flowers were beginning to cover the grass. Before the first week of Spring had passed, she knew she was pregnant again. 
     ‘We'll have our first calves before Christmas,’ Hamlet boasted. ‘And I'll take one of the originals in to be slaughtered. We'll have our own beef soon and plenty to dry and keep. I wish we had a whole paddock of stock, hundreds of them, but that's too much to dream of, isn't it? Once we might have dreamed of such a property but now – ’
     ‘Come, Hamlet, let's not look back. We've made a good start here, and who knows what we'll build up to.’
     ‘Not here, love. It's not enough land for too many head of stock.’ Hamlet dropped into his chair, and sniffed at the smell of the stew on the stove. ‘Now, what are you so bright about tonight? I can see you're feeling good about something.’
     ‘I can't keep much from you, can I now?’ She smiled and touched her stomach gently. 
     ‘Ah,’ he said, grinning. ‘Then you'll be leaving the gardening to me this Spring, eh?’

A week later, Kathryn was packing the back of the cart with fresh vegetables, bottles of fruit jam, baskets of eggs and a platter of cheeses.
     ‘I'm not sure about you driving in there on your own, Kathryn.’ Hamlet frowned. ‘It's a fair ride and bumpy over that track.’
     ‘I won't be on my own, sure I won't, for I'm taking the girls with me and we'll be just fine. A little bump or two at this stage will do no harm and I have so much here that I might as well get a few pennies for it. I'll stop at O'Connell and catch the passers by.  There's a steady stream of people travelling into Bathurst these days, so the neighbours say. We'll be home well before dark so you're not to worry, and sure, you and the boys have some fencing to fix.’
     By mid afternoon, Kathryn was well pleased with her sales and just about to head for home when a cart pulled up just a little past the front of her own. A woman climbed awkwardly from the bench and Kathryn could see, even from the back, that the woman was very largely pregnant. A stocky, dark haired man sat on the bench, holding the reins of the horse and there were children bobbing up and down in the back, amidst a pile of goods. The woman wore a large brimmed hat and came towards Kathryn slowly, her gait clumsy.
     Kathryn was just thinking how unwise she was to be out and about at such a late stage in pregnancy, when she recognised something very familiar about the woman.
     ‘Norah?’ she gasped. ‘Is that you?  It is, sure it is, oh, my Lord.’ She walked quickly to bridge the few feet that were now between them and reached around Norah's wide girth to hug her.
     ‘I knew it was you, sure I did…as soon as I saw you there,’ Nora said, excitedly. ‘I told Michael, that's Kathryn, so I did, and he said I was daft and didn't want to pull up but I insisted. What on earth are you doing way out here? And look at these two little beauties now.’ She waved at the two girls playing at the side of the cart.
     Mary Ann looked up and smiled briefly and then turned her attention back to her small sister, for it was her job to take care of Elizabeth and the eighteen-month-old's attention could be taken very quickly by any small animal on the side of the road. 
     ‘We live near here,’ Kathryn answered, looking Norah up and down. ‘A couple of miles down the Fish River.’
     ‘You do?’ Norah's face was incredulous. ‘Why, we live along Wiseman's Creek, about seven miles south of here. I can't believe it, sure I can't. When…how long…?’ Norah stumbled over her words, her eyes wide with excitement.
     ‘Hamlet and I arrived in the spring of fifty-two. We've a small property now.’
     ‘We were here in February of that same year, so we were.’ Norah nodded, her red curls bobbing around her chin. ‘And all this time I had no idea. Oh, Kathryn, how odd…and how wonderful. Why, we're practically neighbours. Michael and I were on the gold fields north of here for a bit and then, well, he had a little luck and we took a lease on a property. Just a wee hut and a couple of fields. It was in pretty poor condition when we arrived but now we've done a few improvements…put on an extra room.’ She looked down and patted her enlarged belly. 
     ‘And when are you due, for you look like it could be any minute?’
     ‘Sure, it will be in the next couple of weeks. I'm a bit nervous for I've not been alone before…but there's Mrs Foley just down the road. She'll help me, I'm sure.’
     ‘I wish I could be there for you.’ Kathryn reached for Norah’s hand.
     ‘Now don't you worry. I'll be fine. But you must come and visit me sometime.’
     ‘I will,’ Kathryn announced definitely, although her mind was racing with how she would tell Hamlet about this meeting. ‘I'm pregnant myself and I'd not want to go through it alone either. I had Mrs Foley come to me last year…but sadly, it wasn't to be.’
     ‘I'm so sorry, Kathryn…but you must have quite a tribe by now. For it must be six years since I've seen you and…sure this must be Mary Ann?’ She beamed at the young girl who was still focussed on her sister's antics. ‘And you had James and the twins…and this wee one, what's her name?’
     Kathryn’s voice caught in her throat. ‘Uh, no…we lost the twins, Norah. Fever took them when they were very small.’ She took a deep breath. ‘We've just got these two and two boys.  What about you?’
     ‘Just the two still. I lost a little one a couple of years ago…on the gold fields.’ Norah’s face dropped. ‘And I've lost a few at birth.’ She held her stomach protectively.  ‘I'm praying the good Lord will grant me a healthy one now.’
     ‘Oh, I wish I was closer. I'd come, sure I would, Norah. I'm so sorry about your losses. I know how hard it is.’
     ‘Of course you do, for how tragic for you to lose those precious baby twins. If I'd only known. All this time, Kathryn, I’ve…I'm so happy to see you, sure I am. And how is Hamlet?’
     ‘He's fine…working very hard to make something of the little plot we have, as I'm sure Michael is.’
     Norah glanced back at their cart. Michael was still facing away from her. Kathryn could see the children were fidgeting in the back of the cart.
     ‘I'll be off now,’ Norah said. ‘The children will be agitated. It'd be grand to see you again soon. I come in here often on a Tuesdays to get a few supplies, so perhaps…when I've got this one out and about, that is.’ She smiled and rubbed her stomach. ‘Perhaps we might meet up here sometime?’
     ‘Oh, yes, I'll be sure to remember…Tuesdays. Now, here, take some of this with you, for I'm about to head home and I'm not wanting to take it back with me. We have plenty more.’ She held out a bottle of jam and a bag of vegetables.
     Norah shook her head. ‘I couldn't, Kathryn, for I've no money. We spent the last of what we had in Kelso…and I've some vegetables in the plot at home as well.’
     ‘Just some jam then, for we've loads of fruit on the trees and it's very good, even if I say so myself. The children will love it, I’m sure.’
     ‘All right, I will, and thank you. I've bought some fruit trees myself, just now in town.  I've been wanting to put them in since…well, it's taken us a while to get set up.  Thank you.’ Norah took three bottles of jam into the crook of her arm and leaned over and kissed Kathryn on the cheek before she turned and waddled back to her cart.

     ‘Looks like you did well, my love,’ Hamlet said as Kathryn put the few remaining vegetables and bottles of jam back in the pantry. ‘Such an enterprising wife I have.’
     ‘It was an interesting day, sure it was, Hamlet,’ she said tentatively. ‘Very interesting, indeed.’
     ‘Oh?’ Hamlet said, and waited. When she didn't speak, he went on. ‘Well, tell me what you've got bubbling away there.’
     ‘There's something I need to tell you about, sure there is. You'd best sit down.’
     Kathryn watched Hamlet's face tense as she spoke of seeing Norah. His eyes were dark, his jaw clenched and when he spoke it was through gritted teeth.
     ‘Where were they headed? Probably off to the gold fields knowing that one. He'd not be one for farming. Dear God, I hope they were just passing through. I swear I'd not be able to contain myself if I ran into him. Every time I think of my dear mother's face on that brooch I could – ’
     ‘Hamlet, please stay calm,’ Kathryn soothed, rethinking quickly what she had been about to say. ‘Yes, Norah did say something about the gold fields. I'm sure you'll not have to see the man about here. It was just lovely for me to see Norah again though, to see that she's well…and she seems happy. Now, we won't talk of it again. You must try and let it go…please. It's not good to stay angry.’
     ‘I know, my love. I'll have to pray that God gives me a forgiving heart. When I think of that man I realise I’m still as angry as ever I was with him.’ He put his arms around Kathryn and squeezed her gently.
     Kathryn hated to deceive him but she was afraid what he might do if he knew that the man who still haunted his sleep was living just a few miles away. 

     Two weeks later as Hamlet was showing the children how to milk the cow, Kathryn came into the barn, wiping her hands on her apron.
     ‘I need to go into O'Connell for a few things, Hamlet. And there's a woman who lives close by that I need to drop in on. I think she'll be able to help me…when my time comes.’
     ‘Fine, love. Just watch yourself on that track. We could all go if – ’
     ‘I can't be talking to the woman about birthing with all you lot about. No, you just look after the children for a bit and I'll be back later on.’ Kathryn tried to keep her voice light. She hated herself for lying but she had been thinking about Norah and needed to see she was all right. ‘The children had a big breakfast so some bread and cheese will do for lunch. I'll be back soon after.’ Her words were hurried.
     Hamlet nodded, although his frown remained. Kathryn knew he was not happy with her travelling in the cart in her condition but he would not argue with her. She turned and hurried away before he could say any more.
     Kathryn put a couple of items of baby clothing in her bag, along with some more bottles of fruit jam, pulled her bonnet over her hair and headed off in the cart. The track out to Wiseman's Creek was flat for the most part, with a steep pinch towards the end, over a scrubby, rocky hill.
     As she started down the other side of the incline, she was pleasantly surprised to find herself in a small green valley; the grasses high, dotted with wild flowers. She could hear the mooing of a few cattle on the low hills. The creek she had been following had widened into substantial pools. A flock of white cockatoos erupted from a large tree as she rounded a bend, and she saw underneath it a rickety gate on which Kearns had been scratched. She pulled on the reins, turning the horse towards the open gate onto the track to the cottage.
     Well, perhaps one couldn't call it a cottage, she thought as she approached, for it was not much more than a humpy. She could see a second room had been added to the side, although it looked as if it would not stand a strong wind. She knocked quietly and smiled at the young boy who opened the front door. He looked nervous.        
     ‘Are you come to help Ma?’ His lip trembled as he spoke.
     ‘You'll be Thomas, then…and Rebecca?’ she added, looking at the girl who sat at the small table in the corner of the room, brushing her hair.        
     ‘Tom,’ the young boy corrected. ‘It's just Tom now.’
      Rebecca hardly paused in her attention to her hair. 
     ‘I see.’ Kathryn nodded. ‘Yes, I've come to see your Ma. Is she in there?’ She pointed to the other room. As she glanced around the room they were in she couldn't help but notice how bare it was. Apart from the table and a couple of stools, there was an open fire against one wall, a pile of wood, a few pots and pans hanging from the roof above it, and a small cabinet with plates and cups neatly stacked inside. The floor of the room was dirt and Kathryn could smell the mustiness of the winter cold still coming up from the ground. 
     ‘She's poorly,’ Tom said. ‘Pa's gone for Mrs Foley.’
     ‘I'll go to her then, will I? Rebecca, perhaps you could make us a cup of tea.’
     The nine-year-old looked up, a disinterested expression on her face. ‘Tom'll do it,’ she said and looked away.
     ‘I will,’ Tom agreed quickly and moved towards the fire. ‘How do you know our names?’
     ‘I met you a few years ago. You've grown quite a bit but I've not forgotten you. Your Ma and I were good friends.’ She smiled reassuringly at Tom but when she glanced at Rebecca, she could see the girl was not listening. 
     Kathryn moved toward the opening to the other room and peered inside. There was only one small window and the room was quite dark, for the sun was still low in the eastern sky.
     ‘Norah,’ Kathryn said quietly. ‘How are you?’ She knelt close to the mattress, brushed back damp copper curls from Norah's face and took her hand gently.
     ‘Kathryn? Sure I wasn't expecting you,’ Norah murmured, drawing the small bundle beside her close to her side. ‘It was a hard one, sure it was, but worth it.’ She smiled at the tiny face, almost completely covered by a small blanket which had seen much better days, Kathryn thought as she touched the little cheek softly. 
     Norah took a deep breath. ‘Michael's gone for Mrs Foley. She was here for me yesterday but she had to get back to her family. She has about ten of them, so she has. Michael's afraid I might need more help today and…he's not good at this. He's not been left alone with me so soon before.’ She sucked in her breath as she adjusted her position and got more comfortable. 
     ‘Well, I'm glad I came. I thought you'd have the wee one by now, the way you looked last time I saw you. I wanted to bring you a few things. I've plenty for mine…and time to make some more.’ She held out the tiny jacket she had crocheted and a dress with small flowers embroidered on the bodice. 
     ‘Kathryn, they're beautiful. Our wee Mary will look adorable in those. I've not got too much for her.’ She again drew the baby close and a tear rolled from one eye.
     ‘What is it?’ Kathryn asked, stroking Norah’s hand.  
     ‘I was hoping it would be a son for Michael, that's all. She's beautiful, sure she is, but it's just that…she's only the third child to show for any number of pregnancies and I know he'd like another boy.’ Norah wiped her eyes with her sleeve and laid back, spent.
     ‘Well, he'll have to settle for a healthy daughter, won't he now?’ Kathryn said.   
     A few minutes later Tom tapped tentatively on the door and poked his head into the room.
     ‘The tea’s ready.’ 
     ‘Thank you, Tom. I'll get some for your Ma and me.’
     ‘He's a treasure, that one.’ Norah grinned. 
     When Kathryn went to get the tea, Michael was sitting at the table.
     ‘Missus Foley weren't 'ome,’ he mumbled. 
     ‘Norah's weak, but I’m sure she’ll be fine, Michael. And you've a beautiful daughter.’ Kathryn poured two mugs of tea.
     ‘Ah, well.’ Michael sighed, squinting at mother and child through the doorway to the bedroom. ‘Maybe next time, eh?’
     ‘You should be happy to have this one alive and well.’ Kathryn moved back into the bedroom, finding it difficult to hide her annoyance. 
     ‘I'll be pleased enough just to keep her alive, so I will,’ Norah whispered, drawing the baby close. 
      ‘Well, we've each other now, don't we?’ Kathryn helped Norah sit up enough to drink. ‘I'm not so far away that I can’t visit.’ She glanced sideways at Michael, who had come to the door opening. ‘I'm sure the children would enjoy playing together and I'll be grateful for a friend, sure I will.’
     ‘I'd like that so much.’ Norah beamed. ‘There's the Foleys and the Forans and Hanrahans near here – quite a few Irish – but we haven't mixed much. We'll be pleased if you'll come, won't we Michael?’
     ‘Hmm,’ Michael murmured, clearly not excited by the prospect.
      Kathryn ignored him. She and Norah had been friends before he came along and would be again and she was not going to be put off by him. She felt she would like to give him a piece of her mind. His attitude to his wife was appalling, apart from the rest of what she knew about him. She was going to have trouble holding her tongue, though she would for Norah's sake.
     As she drove home that afternoon, she was conscious that her greater problem would be finding a way to tell Hamlet that the Kearns family was going to be part of their lives again. 

To be continued...

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

 O'Connell, near Bathurst, September, 1852

Where are we, Pa?’ James yawned and stretched. He had enjoyed the first few days of their trip over the mountains with so much to see in the bush alongside the road. But now he was clearly tired of sitting in the cart, even though Kathryn had let him sit up front with Hamlet most of the time. He wanted to get out and run and play, to explore the bush and look for animals. 
     ‘Is this where we're going to live now?’ he continued to question, as his father pulled up the horses in front of an inn.
     ‘No, James. This town is called O'Connell, just near a bigger town called Bathurst, where we'll probably go for stores and such but just now I need to find directions to Fish River. That's where we'll be living.’
     ‘Why is it called Fish River?’
     ‘I don't know, James, but I hope it's because there are fish in it.’ Hamlet chuckled as he jumped from the cart and strode towards the inn. 
     Kathryn was glad to see him laugh. It had been a hard decision to leave Campbelltown, and it had taken quite a few months to organise the lease on a property near O'Connell, but it had given them something to plan for. Now that they were so close, she could feel some excitement about it all, and she could see her husband did too. 
     ‘Can we swim in the river, Ma?’ Mary Ann asked, watching her father disappear into the inn.
     ‘Perhaps, my sweet. We won't know what the property is like until we get there. I know that there are some fruit trees planted there.’
     ‘What kind of fruit? Can we eat it?’
     Kathryn smiled. She was glad her children were curious about the world around them, even though it was sometimes trying. ‘The trees were planted by the previous tenant. Probably oranges and plums. That's what they grow out here, and yes, it will be wonderful to have fresh fruit to eat right off our own trees.’
     ‘It's only a couple of miles out along the river,’ Hamlet explained when he returned a few minutes later. ‘Less than an hour away but the innkeeper says we'd be better to stay here the night. It's a narrow track and it would be dark before we got there. I think he's right. I'd rather arrive in the daylight so we can find our way about the property. I've got us a room here and I'll get some supplies at the store up the road. I think we deserve a good night's sleep. It's been quite a trip.’
     He chucked Elizabeth under the chin. She grinned back at her father from her mother's lap, her face lighting up as she clapped her hands.
     ‘You have beautiful children, Mrs Pollard.’ He smiled at Kathryn lovingly. ‘They've not been a scrap of trouble, have they?’
     ‘They've not,’ Kathryn agreed. ‘They have the easy going nature of their father. Let's hope there's more like them.’
     Hamlet's eyes opened wide. ‘Are you telling me – ’
     ‘No, I'm not telling you anything at all, sure I'm not,’ Kathryn responded quickly. She was still feeding nine-month-old Elizabeth and was hoping not to fall pregnant again until they got resettled. ‘Plenty of time for that, dear. Now let's get into this room of ours and perhaps find a little space for the children to have a run about before nightfall.’

The children continued their questioning as the family rode along the track by the river the following morning, their brown eyes widening as their mother pointed out wattle trees, grevillea bushes with large red and orange spidery flowers hanging from their spindly limbs, and purple clematis, winding its way around the trunks of tall gum trees.  Parrots flitted from tree to tree, the bright greens and blues of their feathers adding to the colourful scenery.
     ‘Sure, you might even spot a koala if you look really hard,’ Kathryn encouraged.
     ‘I like it here, Ma,’ James said earnestly, paying studious attention to his surroundings. ‘Why did they leave here, Pa? Did their babies die, too?’
     Kathryn’s heart missed a beat.
     ‘The last owner left here to look for gold,’ Hamlet said evenly. ‘It seems he had some luck so he bought a larger property further out west. That's all I know.’
     ‘Gold!’ James's eyes widened. ‘How did he find gold, Pa?’
     ‘He dug for it, I suppose, like all the others who've gone out to the gold fields. They find it along the river banks and creeks, I think.’
     ‘Will we find gold, too?’
     ‘I doubt it, James.’ Hamlet smiled. ‘I'll not be digging for it at any rate. I'll be too busy digging a vegetable plot. I'm told there was once quite a good garden here so we'll have our work cut out for us.’
     ‘Oh.’ James looked disappointed and paused as if considering what he would say next. ‘Will we have to build a house, Pa?’
     ‘No, there's a small cottage on the property but it will do us fine until we can build on extra rooms as we need them.’
     ‘Johnny, Mary Ann, look! A kangaroo!’ James suddenly leaned over the edge of the cart, pointing to a clearing in the bush beside them.
     The three children watched, enthralled as the small kangaroo raised its head curiously and then hopped away. 
     ‘T'will be good when the children can run and explore, Hamlet.’ Kathryn patted her husband's knee as she finished feeding Elizabeth. ‘Sure, they've energy to spare.’
     ‘They have indeed and thank God for that,’ Hamlet agreed. 
     ‘Are you happy we've come?’ she asked tentatively.
     ‘I am…and you?’
     ‘It seems the right thing to me, Hamlet. I love this bushland already.’
     ‘Yes, I have a good feeling about this place.’ Hamlet sighed with a contentment that Kathryn was relieved to see. 

A week later they sat on the small porch of their cottage, watching the sun drop behind the hills to the west. They could hear the water of Stoney Creek, running over small stones as it meandered through the front of their property into the river. It was clear and fresh, providing all the water that they needed for the house and for the neat vegetable plot they had weeded and turned over ready for planting. Further from the house was a small orchard where apple, orange, plum and nectarine trees clustered together. It was in need of pruning but in spite of not having had much recent attention, there were plenty of oranges and a crop of plums and nectarines on the way. A few lemon trees skirted the edge of the larger trees and were laden with fruit. Kathryn had already begun making jam and the children had feasted on oranges all week. Hamlet had been into Bathurst and arranged the purchase of some piglets, chickens and a cow for milking. 
     Stoney Creek. So this is home now,’ Hamlet said with a deep sigh. ‘It feels good, Kathryn. I'll get the frames made for our mattresses this week. At least there's plenty of wood around here. Much more than Campbelltown, eh? I'm glad the last owner left a wooden floor, for I'd expected it might be dirt. And the walls are in good condition, too.  I'll make another stool for the table and – ’
     ‘No rush,’ Kathryn assured him. ‘We're quite comfortable now and there's plenty of time. The bits of furniture they left, plus what we brought with us, are doing us just fine and the wood stove is working well, that's the main thing. There's even potatoes still in the ground and pumpkins aplenty. God has been good to us, so He has.’
     ‘He has, Kathryn. I can't deny it, in spite of our losses.’ He nodded his head and sucked on his pipe quietly for a few moments before continuing to plan out loud.
     ‘I'll check the fences in the small paddock tomorrow. The animals will be here before the end of the week. It's been a wet winter so there's plenty of grass for the cow and a couple of calves. Young Elizabeth's the only one who's had any milk just lately, eh?’
     He looked across at his daughter, who was sitting on the grass in front of the porch, picking at wild daisies. Her wispy brown curls flopped around her eyes. She seemed to sense her father's gaze and looked up, her face splitting into a wide smile as she held up her flowers.
     ‘I think she's a gardener at heart.’ Hamlet chuckled and Kathryn noted the lightness of it. Yes, they had made a good new start and she could feel a sense of gratitude welling from deep within her soul. 

Seven miles south of O'Connell at Wiseman's Creek, Norah was chasing chickens back into a tin pen tacked around the base of a large gum tree. The branches of the tree stretched out to shelter the daub and wattle hut which had become her family's home.  She had been disappointed when she had first seen it, for it was dilapidated and full of spider webs and crawling insects, but she had cleaned it out thoroughly and white washed the inside walls. Michael had done some repairs and Norah had surprised him by making up mud clay and closing over some of the worst gaps in the boards.
     ‘We did this in Ireland, sure we did,’ she had said, determinedly. ‘Sets good and hard and it'll keep out more than cold air, for I'll not be sharing this place with the crawlies we had sleeping with us in the tent.’
     Inside the hut was pokey and dark with hardly a window, but it had kept out the worst of the rain and wind through the Winter. The four of them had huddled together each night for warmth; the packed dirt floor giving little protection from the cold nights, and the open fire against the back wall cooling quickly when they stopped feeding it.  The blackened chimney over the fire had been badly choked; the smoke nearly overcoming them on many a night until Michael finally used tree branches to clear it.  Norah was glad to be able to cook their meals inside now and they'd had plenty of possum and roo rat stew and damper, as well as eggs from the fowls.
     Norah was looking forward to putting in some fruit trees and they'd bought a good stock of flour, tea and sugar in Bathurst before they'd headed out to take up the lease on this small property. 
     ‘They're all in, Ma,’ Tom called as the last chicken jumped ahead of him and scrambled into the pen. He dusted his hands off as he had seen his mother do. ‘Don't want the dogs getting 'em, do we?’
     ‘We don't, my sweet.’ Norah tousled the five-year-old's dark, shaggy hair, thinking it was time she took to it with the shears. ‘At least one of those chickens will make a nice Christmas roast this year, so it will.’
     Tom frowned sadly but then quickly accepted his mother's plan, and nodded. He reached up and put his hand in hers and they strolled together back to the hut.
     Norah relished the warmer evening air. Spring was almost here and she meant to get the garden dug over well so she could plant some summer vegetables. They had a few pumpkins and potatoes left from the small patch she had planted when they arrived in early February but she had plans to extend the garden now and was looking forward to the longer days.
     Perhaps Michael would put in some fruit trees by the lone lemon tree that stood like a sentinel in the middle of the paddock behind their hut, Norah mused as they approached the back door. He had lost interest in the idea of a pen that he planned to build for some pigs and so the two piglets they had brought with them had foraged through the garden patch most of the winter, until some wild dogs attacked them one night and after a terrible scuffle, dragged both of them into the bush. Not even Michael shooting his gun into the air over their heads, had stopped the dogs, although it had certainly frightened the children and put the fowls off the lay for a few days.
     Perhaps she would try to get him interested in the fencing again and get some more piglets. And although he wasn't showing any interest in raising sheep or cows, she was determined to at least get a milking cow, for they could all do with the sustenance. Michael said the money was all gone on the lease and the few bits of furniture they had bought in Bathurst and he couldn't see for the life of him, how anyone made a farm pay, for it was all work and no rewards and, certainly, no fun. She sighed, as she entered the hut, wondering how they were going to make this work. 
     ‘Rebecca, have you boiled the kettle? I'm ready for a cup of sweet tea, so I am.’ She scowled playfully at her daughter.
     Trying to get the eight-year-old to help her with the housework was proving to be quite a chore in itself. Rebecca was more likely to flounce out of the hut and disappear for an hour than to comply with even the smallest request. Norah had tried to introduce work slowly, for their daughter had spent all her life in a dank room or a tent and found it difficult to see the point of cleaning anything. It also seemed to Norah that Rebecca was basically like her father in nature; they would both rather find a way to break a rule than to cooperate and work in with others.
     Michael avoided any attempt to discipline the children until they annoyed him in some way and then he would explode into expletives for five minutes and storm off with a bottle of whisky, find a tree to sit under and drink until he fell asleep. He missed the pub, he often complained, for it wasn't natural for a man to live so far from a watering hole where he could gather with his mates and swap stories. 
     Norah was determined to focus her thoughts on the good things Michael did. He had chopped wood faithfully during the winter, and when she had spent three days on their mattress in June following a miscarriage, he had been very attentive and had even made a damper to go with the left over stew she had made the week before. She was hoping she wouldn't fall pregnant again too soon, for she wanted to get their farm well established over Spring and needed all her energy.
     Surely, Michael would come to love the farm as she did for he must see how much healthier the children were now, how peaceful it was out here in the bush, and how the beauty around them could lift their spirits and give them a sense of purpose. 

Michael was fiddling with the lantern on the rough sawn table and when he couldn't get it to light, he pushed it over and stamped his feet.
     ‘Now, Michael,’ she chided. ‘Patience will see it done, sure it will.’
     He grimaced and turned back to the task, his hands shaky as he tried to light the filament on the fire. When the lantern was eventually glowing, he sat back in the wicker chair and reluctantly took a hot cup of tea from her hands, although she knew he would have preferred a swig of whisky.
     Later that evening, when they had all had a bowl of soup and bread and the children had curled up in one corner and were almost asleep, he pulled Norah onto his knee.
     ‘I've been thinkin, me luv.’ He paused, as if working out how to say what was on his mind.
     ‘There's more we need 'ere…to make it snug, eh? We need more room, sure we do, for if yer to 'ave more wee ones, where'd they fit, tell me that?’ He stopped again, as if hoping to get her agreement. When she didn't speak, he continued. ‘I'm thinkin' it might be worth me takin' a little…excursion, so to speak. I hear tell in Bathurst that they're all but pickin' up gold now in the dry creek beds in parts back near –’
     Norah pushed herself from his lap and turned to see that the children were asleep. When she looked back at him, she could barely speak without hissing. ‘Don't think about it one more minute, Michael Kearns, for there's nought we need here but to put some work into the garden, get some pigs and a cow, and – ’
     ‘There's nothin' to get us so much as a pig's ear,’ he said plaintively. ‘I've told you already, girl…nothin' left to buy the next bag of flour we'll need, nor even – ’
     ‘Nor even a flagon of whisky, that's what you're thinking, is it not?’ She raised her voice and then checked herself, glancing at the children. ‘Michael, I don't want to have this conversation for we'll not agree. I'll not move from this spot. The children and I are going to make a home here and we'll make do with whatever we have to eat, until I get some vegetables growing. I've got the seed and I've still enough flour and tea and such to get us through Spring. Please don't be yearning for your old life for it brought us nothing but trouble, sure it did.’
     ‘Nothin' but trouble, did it now? Yer ungrateful girl. And what do yer think got yer here then, eh? Not growin' vegetables and raisin' chickens, for sure. No, it were my canny got us 'ere, so it was. Tis what I know and what I need to do.’
     ‘Michael, please,’ she pleaded. ‘We have to work together. It'll pay off in time, you'll see.’ Tears sprang into Norah's eyes.
     Michael turned away, dropping his head into his hands. ‘It'll be all right, girl,’ he whispered softly. ‘You'll see. It'll be all right.’
     When Norah woke the following morning, Michael was nowhere to be seen. He was not by the creek where she often found him scanning the edges and lifting rocks.  Looking for gold, she had often thought. But it had not occurred to her that he would go back to the goldfields and risk being caught. And, certainly not that he would leave her alone out here with the children to fend for herself. But it seemed he was gone and she had no idea for how long. She prayed that he had gone to Bathurst to get another piglet or two, for surely he had enough money left for that. When she found the horse was missing but not the cart, she knew that he had not gone to town. When he had not returned by the end of the week, she set herself to digging the garden and planting her seeds.

It was early in December when the horse pulled up outside the hut. Norah watched through the back door as Michael slid casually from the animal's back as if he had left just that morning. He strode towards the hut, his coat flowing behind him. With a wide grin on his face, he strode inside and tried to pull Norah into his arms as she was about to lift a pot from the fire. 
     She dropped the pot back onto the hearth and spun around to face him, pushing his arms away. ‘How dare you? How dare you strut back in here as if you've done nothing to deserve a thorough thrashing?’
     Her hands were planted on her hips and she glared at him with angry eyes. ‘We've had you dead and buried, sure we have. Rebecca's run off twice looking for you and come back distraught. Tom's very angry with you. What do you expect your children to think, Michael, tell me that? And what do you think I'm supposed to do? Just welcome you back with open arms? Well, no more, Michael. I'll not –’
     ‘Oh, do stop yer blabbin', girl, for you'll change yer mind when yer see what I've brought yer.’
     ‘No matter what you've brought, Michael, it doesn't excuse your –’ Norah stopped abruptly, her breath caught in her throat as she watched Michael tip a bag of coins onto the table. 
     ‘An' that's just the beginnin' of it, girl. For I really struck it rich this time. Not these little nuggets what are more dirt than gold. No, not this time. I got a big ‘un this time, sure I did, and 'ad a lot of fun doin' it. The biggest loudmouth on the field…thought 'e was king of the castle…well, I showed 'im, didn't I now?’
     ‘Michael,’ Norah gasped. ‘No, this is not right. This is so wrong. God help us, what have you done? I can't live like this, sure I can't. T'will be the death of me...’
     Before she could say any more, she heard the clatter of feet coming through the door.
     ‘Pa…Pa, you're home.’ Rebecca raced into her father's embrace, tears running down her face. When she heard him laugh, she pushed back, her face creasing into a frown.  
      ‘Where were you, Pa? I looked and looked. I thought you were…what's this?’ Her eye caught the glint of the coins on the table and her attention switched focus. ‘Are we rich now, Pa? Are we?’
     Michael smiled and reached into his britches pocket, pulling out a small bag. He handed it to her, grinning. He looked up and winked at Norah as his daughter opened the bag and squealed with delight when she saw the pretty hairbrush and small mirror. She took them from the bag carefully and turned them over in her hand, then held her gift out to show her mother, a smile spreading across her face.
     She was very pretty when she smiled, Norah thought.  Pity she has had so little to smile about in her short life.
     ‘And somethin' for you, boyo.’
     Michael pulled a second bag from his other pocket and held it out to Tom, who had come in behind Rebecca and was standing beside his mother. He had not said a word and was looking at his father with, what seemed to Norah, to be contempt.
     She had tried to help her son not to think too badly of Michael when they discovered he had gone, insisting that he was doing what he thought best for the family. Tom had nodded and continued on with his jobs, but now Norah could see just how angry he was. Her every harsh thought about Michael was mirrored in the boy's face. She reached out and touched his shoulder, pushing him gently towards his father's outstretched hand. He looked at her defiantly for a moment and then took a step forward, taking the bag tentatively. 
     ‘Well, open it, yer daft boy. It won't jump out o' the bag, you know.’ Michael laughed again. Rejection of his gifts was clearly inconceivable for him. It was as if they were  proof of his good intentions and a sign that all their worries were for naught.
     Tom slowly pulled the bag open and drew out a pen knife with a carved wooden handle. Norah knew it would please him. She could immediately think of a dozen ways he would use it around the property. He was always wishing he had something sharp enough to drive into the ground or wanting to cut rope when he was trying to lash sticks together. She could see him struggling to say thank you, for he had cast his father as a villain in his mind these past three months and she knew his disappointment would  not easily pass.
     Tom nodded briefly at his Pa and smiled weakly at Norah, as if looking for her to help him get past this moment.
     ‘They're lovely gifts, aren't they, children? I’m sure you’re pleased with them. Now, I'd like you both to go back to rounding up those chickens and check there's no eggs we've missed, while I have a wee talk with your Pa.’
     ‘Come on, now, girl. Don't be mad, eh?’ Michael said as soon as they’d gone. ‘I've brought somethin' for you as well, so I 'ave. Outside, come on.’
     Norah followed him reluctantly and gasped when she saw the hessian bag hanging from the saddle on his horse, for she was sure it was moving about. She watched, intrigued, as Michael unlashed the bag and lay it on the ground, loosening the top until two small piglets wriggled out, squealing as they struggled to their feet, still dazed from their journey. 
     ‘Oh, poor little mites. They're frightened out of their wits, sure they are.’ She picked one up and smoothed its back. ‘They're so small. Should they be without their mother?’
     ‘Sure, would I buy a pig not weaned? Now, I'll find a box to put them in for the night and tomorrow I'll build that pen I promised you, for did Michael ever break 'is promise to yer?’ He squeezed her shoulders roughly and planted a kiss on her cheek. 
     As he grabbed the horse's reins and pulled it toward the back of the hut, Norah involuntarily screwed up her nose. Michael smelled like he hadn't bathed in three months. She’d been glad of the December heat, which had made it so pleasant for her and the children to wade into the creek each day lately, to wash. She hoped Michael could be lured to do the same.
     She shook her head and picked up the second piglet. She would have to make sure these two didn't get into her vegetable garden, for it was feeding them nicely. As she walked slowly to the back of the hut, she glanced at the underbellies of the piglets; one male and one female. Was this the promise of another new start? How could she fight against it?

To be continued....

Carol Preston