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

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