The countryside was swarming with over two thousand diggers. The children of local farmers around the
marvelled that there were so many men in the world. The chaos had begun in earnest in May, when the government released news of E. H. Hargraves's find at the junction of Lewis Ponds and Summer Hill Creek, about thirty-five miles from Bathurst. Using panning methods he had learned on the goldfields of Turon River , Hargraves had ridden into the valley around Lewis Ponds Creek, certain that there was gold under his feet because of the similarity of the countryside to the gold bearing country of California . Later, it was learned that a two hundredweight nugget had been found by an Aborigine at Murroo Creek; this bigger than anything found in California . Like wildfire, the news of the discoveries spread. One man had found a nugget weighing eleven pounds and a party of three diggers had divided the sum of sixteen hundred pounds between them after a fortnight's work. California
As numbers increased on the fields a scarcity of provisions set in and the prices of flour, tea, sugar, bacon and other foods had soared. Bread was an unheard of sixpence a loaf. In
and Sydney , diggers cleared shops of garden implements, wash basins, tin pots and colanders, all to be used as makeshift tools for gold panning. Men deserted their farms and jobs in the cities, their enthusiasm barely dampened by the government's decree that only persons who paid a licence fee of thirty shillings a month would be permitted to dig. Bathurst
By mid June, the general lack of fortune was such that diggers were meeting together to protest against the fee, but it didn't stop men from flocking to the gold fields. Wattle Flats resembled a human ant heap, usually with three men to a fifteen square foot claim; one man digging, one wheeling or carrying dirt to the water and another working the cradle. The low hills were riddled with shafts, drives, open cuts and mullock heaps. Bearded, weather beaten, ragged bodies could be seen everywhere, rushing in a frenzy from one claim to another. Some were filling a pint pot with gold most days, others a wooden match-box. Many scarcely got enough to pay for their tucker. Some hoarded their findings quietly. Others displayed their haul, bragging.
Shanty buildings were appearing all over the fields; set up as supply stores, sly grog sellers or dance halls, all anxious to relieve the men of their new found wealth. The more circumspect diggers used Saturday afternoons to exchange their gold for necessary provisions from the stores. They lined up with chamois leather bags of dust and nuggets, waiting their turn for the storekeeper, who would weigh the bag and pay each one what their gold was worth. Then, cash in hand, the men would pass along the counter and be served their groceries.
Norah knew much of this because Michael brought back news from his jaunts around the various claims and his evenings of drinking at the Diggers Arms, colloquially known as McCarthy's Pub. Although he insisted he had a small claim on the other side of the hill, Norah had never seen signs of his having done any digging. He worked alone, which in itself indicated he was not likely to be successful, and although he often returned with a small bag of specks, she wondered, fearfully, if he was up to his old methods of picking up his finds.
She had insisted he swing the pick and use the shovel to at least carve her out a small vegetable plot and he had brought back pumpkin seeds on more than one occasion; a gift from one of the local farmers, he had assured her.
Norah watched as some of the tents were replaced by bark humpies or wattle and daub huts. Small gardens began to appear. Potato and pumpkin patches spotted the outskirts of the diggings. Small tin pens for fowls were tacked around the base of trees to protect the birds from the native cats, snakes and dingoes. Along the river banks and creeks, an unsightly mess of kerosene tins, wooden cases, bags and jam tins appeared.
The little contact Norah had with other women served only to remind her that the gold field was anything but a safe place for a family. There were the ever present dangers of falling trees or shafts collapsing; smothering diggers or trapping those who stumbled into the holes as they swaggered home from a drinking bout. There were no qualified medical men in the camp, just the local quack, known as Doctor Tom, who could set a broken leg or stitch a cut. Death by apoplexy had been reported of some diggers who laboured hard in the heat from early morning until late in the evening and then were overexcited by their meagre finds. There was also the risk of bushrangers and other unscrupulous characters, who would sooner steal their find than dig for it and weren't adverse to shooting any reluctant donor. And to top it off, there was the constant fear of the notorious summer bushfires which raged through the fields, ravaging everything in their paths.
These predictions and fears, which were regularly recited by the women, did nothing to ease Norah's own concerns. She hardly ever ventured into the centre of the growing camp, except on the rare occasion that Michael sent her into the store on a Saturday afternoon to exchange a few specks of gold for a pound of flour or sugar. The women she met most often looked like they had been working the claims alongside their husbands, for they were caked with mud, their skin crinkled and burnt, their bare feet swollen and bruised. She was too ashamed to socialise, afraid she would find out that Michael was unknown amongst the diggers apart from his nightly excursions to the pub.
So she focussed on feeding her family. She learned to set the traps in the surrounding bushland, catching roo rats and possums which made a reasonable stew. She worked her small plot of garden. She mended and remended the few pieces of clothing she and the children had. The coldest part of winter was the most difficult time and many afternoons she and the children huddled in the tent, dragging all their rugs around them, crawling into their swag as soon as the sun disappeared behind the hills, their stomachs often barely satisfied with some hot, sweet tea and a small johnny cake which she had baked on the coals of their fire.
By the beginning of Spring, she had a small patch of potatoes growing, a pumpkin vine producing and two fowls in a tin pen that laid a few eggs and were the prospect of a Christmas dinner. She had refrained from asking where the fowls originated. Rebecca and Thomas were hardy children and once the warmer weather made it more pleasant, they amused themselves by spotting birds and checking the traps, and cheering on those animals that managed to escape the dastardly end which saw them headed for the stew pot. They ventured occasionally to some of the closer claims, watching with interest as men dug and sluiced, alternatively whooping with the joy of a small find or dragging themselves downheartedly back to their rock piles, empty handed.
The greatest enjoyment for Norah came on Sundays, when many of the families downed tools and gathered under one of the large spreading trees by the creek to sing a few hymns and listen to one of the locals remind them that God was watching their endeavours and that they should be mindful to remain obedient to His word. Some of the men would change out of their moleskin trousers, blue shirts and monkey jackets for their Sunday outing and appear, looking quite dapper, in corduroy pants and frock coats, their Wellington boots rubbed clean of mud. Those who were doing well wore flowered or embroidered vests and broad collars with flowing ties to advertise their good fortune.
Even Michael attempted to spruce himself up for Sundays and sat with Rebecca and Thomas, one each side of him on a log, singing in loud voice and echoing the preacher's comments as if they'd come from his own heart. Norah wanted to believe that her husband was genuine in his sentiments but she had to constantly push away her doubts about his sincerity.
It was little Michael who was Norah's greatest concern, for he was a weak child. His complexion was sallow, his eyes dull and, at eleven months old, he was barely crawling about. He was too thin, she knew, for her milk was poorly and they had both suffered badly with a cold during the winter. Michael dismissed her worries, assuring her that he would be up and running by Summer, that all he needed was a good feed of possum stew to see him started. However, Norah could not interest the child in the broth from her stew and, at best, could only get him to suck on a crust of damper.
When she heard that Bishop Broughton, the Church of England Bishop of Sydney, was to visit the area late in October, she begged Michael to take her the few miles to Sofala to hear him. Perhaps he would pray for their son, she pleaded, for Catholic or not, he must be a man close to God. But Michael scoffed at the idea.
‘I’ll not ‘ave an English toff, an’ a Protestant to boot, presumin’ to ‘ave a ‘and in my son’s good health.’
Sadly, Norah's concerns proved valid and two days after Christmas, little Michael succumbed to the fever which had overtaken him a few days before, rendering him listless and grey faced. Although Norah spent thirty-six hours awake, her efforts to keep his temperature down were all in vain and in the early hours of the morning, he died in her arms. Michael went on a drinking spree that lasted five days and on the sixth day he didn't come home at all. A week later, Norah was sure she had lost her husband as well as her son.
When Michael returned early in January, his appearance frightened Norah almost as much as his disappearance had. He was haggard and sunburnt, his bearded face was scratched and bruised, his arms torn. Dried blood was caked to his elbows. His clothes were filthy.
‘Dear God, Michael, where have you been? Sure, I've had you dead and buried in one of those wretched holes out there?’ Norah flew at him, unsure whether to throw her arms about him or thrash him with all her fury.
‘Don't fuss, luv.’ His voice was strangely calm. ‘We'll be fine now, sure we will, for I've 'ad some luck at last, an' there'll be no more scroungin'.’
With that he dragged a small leather bag from under the sash around his waist, opened it and dropped two nuggets into the palm of his hand. He sighed deeply, as he waited for Norah to realise what this would mean.
‘They're worth a lot, girl,’ he continued when she stood, speechlessly staring at his hand. ‘A lot,’ he insisted, clearly disappointed in her lack of response.
‘Michael, where did you…?’ Norah's mind was racing. She turned her head as he began to speak, for she knew he was going to lie to her before the first word was out. ‘No, don't be telling me some story that a fool wouldn't believe, for I've had enough of it. You've stolen them, haven't you? You've left me and the children alone in our grief, and gone out to God knows where, stolen from some hard working family, and put us all in mortal danger, sure you have. How could you do that, when our poor wee baby has died and we should be begging God to forgive us for the life we've lived? What will we have to endure, tell me that, before you'll change your ways and help us live a decent, God fearing life?’
Norah was almost hysterical now, her cries ringing across the valley. She was thrashing about at Michael, her blows glancing his face and chest as he ducked and weaved, trying to avoid her fists.
Finally, he grabbed her by both arms and pinned them down, hissing into her face.
‘Quiet, you stupid girl, or you'll 'ave someone 'ere to see what the racket's about, sure you will. You're talkin' rot, and you'll shut yer mouth right now, or I'll shut it for yer.’
Norah continued to weep. Deep shuddering sobs racked her body. Rebecca and Thomas watched in horror as their parents raged at each other. When their father turned his glare on them, they both backed into the tent, whimpering.
‘Now, you get yourself into that tent, my girl, an' get packed. You 'ear me?’ He growled at Norah and shoved her backwards. ‘We'll be leavin' 'ere, before the mornin' light, with or without your bits an' pieces, an' I'll not 'ear another word about me stealin' anythin'. You'll be grateful for what this'll bring us, or you can make your own way in the world.’
Norah had never heard his voice so hard, had never seen the cold glint in his eyes that now stared her down. She rubbed her arms where his grip had surely bruised her and wiped her eyes. She could hear Rebecca and Thomas crying inside the tent and she turned slowly from her husband's face and went to them.
Before the sun rose, they were pulling away from Wattle Flat, their faces both steely as they gazed at the track ahead of them. The children were still half asleep, having been lifted from the swag and laid in the back of the cart before they woke. By the time they were approaching the outskirts of
, Michael had calmed down. He glanced occasionally at Norah, waiting for the usual softening of her face which would indicate to him that she was ready to put the past behind her. Bathurst
He had learned that she had a heart to forgive and a natural optimism that he could draw out. He had always been able to woo her, get himself back into her good graces, charm her into believing that the future would be better. And this time, she must surely believe it, he thought, as he touched the small sack at his waist, for their fortune lay against his skin and soon his wife would see the results of it. He meant to do the right thing this time, for he knew he had sorely tested her patience. He would get the land she had always wanted now; farm land where she could grow vegetables and keep fowls; where the children could run and play safely. He could apply himself to farming, he was sure, for it couldn't be that hard to raise a few sheep or cows.
He had had a close call getting this last haul, for he had taken a greater risk; reckless and angry in his grief, careless in his planning. He had rushed in, thought little about the men he had chosen to relieve of their riches. He would have to stay put for a while, in a place well away from the diggers, where he could become known as a man of the land. He would also be well clear of the gold commissioner, who had made the gold field a man trap by insisting on seeing a miner's licence at a moment's notice. Yes, it was time to move on. An honest, God fearing man was what his wife wanted, so that's what he would be.
Norah looked up and down the wide streets of
as their cart slowly moved past store fronts, pubs and a post office. She stared at women in wide, swishing skirts, holding coloured parasols, men in top hats and bright waistcoats. There were children scurrying behind parents; clean children with shiny hair and fresh clothes and new boots. Her spirits lifted in spite of her deep anguish and her determination to be angry. She sensed hope arise in her heart again, and her unrelenting longing for something better. She allowed her eyes to drift sideways, searching Michael's face. Could she ever trust him again? She would not easily be convinced but perhaps she could give him another chance in this new place, with her last vestige of strength. Bathurst
The Bathurst Free Press was filled with news of the rush for gold. In
, as in Victoria , men were leaving their farms, their business, their families, and tearing off to gold fields where stories of nuggets, small and large, of fortunes made and lost, sent men into a delirium of gold fever. Norah glanced through the paper, shaking her head. Her gaze kept returning to Rebecca and Thomas on the floor of the tiny room they had taken in the Royal Hotel. She couldn't believe how different they looked after the bath that they had all soaked in. The smell of real soap was still fresh on their skin, their hair was gleaming, their cheeks rosy. They had to dress in their old clothes, of course, but Michael assured her that would change this very day, as soon as he returned with the money he would get for his nuggets. He would go to the local land council as well, for he knew that there were farms now readily available on the south east of Bathurst; farms abandoned by men seeking their fortunes on the gold fields in the north. They would be settled on a small place of their own before the end of the month, he had assured her, and until then they would busy themselves here in New South Wales , gathering together the makings of a life on the land. Bathurst
‘Farm land this time, girl, I promise, you'll see, sure you will, an' has Michael ever broken a promise to you, eh?’ He chortled his old laugh and tousled her red curls, planting a kiss on her nose and winking cheekily.
‘He's incorrigible, so he is,’ she thought. ‘Just as has always been said of him but it's so hard not to love him. Dear God, let it be right this time.’