Sunday, 30 September 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen

I have often said ‘I forgive you’ but even
as I said these words my heart remained
angry or resentful. I still want to hear
the story that tells me that I was right
after all; I still wanted to hear apologies
and excuses; I still wanted the   
satisfaction of receiving some praise in 
return - if only the praise for being so 
forgiving.' Henri Nouwen                                                              

Wiseman's Creek, February, 1867

It had been a long, hot day but Norah felt she had accomplished a lot. She had paid up their rent for another six months, bought materials for the children's clothes, some seed and small plants, as well as flour, salt, oil and sugar. She had also taken Theresa to the doctor, having been concerned about her continually running nose. The doctor had considered her concerns unwarranted but given her a small jar of elixir to rub on the fifteen-month-old's chest. Norah sighed with relief and smiled at Mary, now fourteen and quite the little mother, who held her sister, Theresa, closely on her knee as the cart bumped across the dusty track that led to their hut.
     Norah heard William stir in the back of the cart. He had hardly said a word on the way home, having been entirely occupied with sucking the sweet Mr Atkins had given him earlier when Norah had stopped in at the Inn to enquire about Rebecca.  But Bob Atkins just shook his head sadly when Norah stepped in the door these days, having seen nothing of Rebecca since she had left four years earlier. Norah inevitably left there feeling sad and found herself silently praying for her daughter most of the way home.  Now, she distracted herself by noting how dry the ground looked as she slowed the cart near their hut. She hoped her vegetables would not be too parched.            
     She sighed thankfully as she came through the door, the smell of soup greeting her.  Tom was all smiles, always happy to see his mother home. Joseph and Mick also seemed relieved to see her and Norah suspected their older brother had been a hard taskmaster in her absence. She grinned at the two boys who were fiddling with setting the table. They were obviously under strict orders and their resentment showed. Norah thanked them and said what a good job they had done as she helped serve out the piping soup and watched them scoop it up heartily.
     ‘Tis very good, Tom, so it is. You've done a great job…hasn't he boys?’ she said, watching their faces. Neither Joseph nor Mick looked up from their plates. ‘I said your brother has done a good job with this soup, hasn't he now?’ she said more pointedly.
     Joseph nodded begrudgingly and Mick grunted as he swallowed another mouthful. 
     ‘They're a bit fed up, I'm afraid, Ma,’ Tom explained. ‘We've been working hard all day but we've got all the fences mended. The boys will be glad of a good sleep, I reckon.’
     ‘I see.’ Norah nodded. ‘Well, we'll all be glad of that, sure enough.’

     ‘I've been reading about the new railway being built east of Lithgow, Ma,’ Tom remarked as he and Norah sipped hot tea when the others had gone to bed. ‘Sounds like a huge project. It's through to Lapstone Hill and apparently the engineer, John Whitton, wanted to tunnel through the hill but that was going to cost too much so they've built this rail line with three legs in a zig zag and the train has to reverse up one of the legs and then they have to switch the engine from front to back. There's also a huge viaduct over Knapsack gully, the largest in Australia. Two of the spans are fifty five feet high.’
     ‘Sounds impressive.’ Norah tried to sound interested but tiredness was catching up with her. ‘Why are they going to so much trouble? Surely if it's that hard people could just use the coaches. They're regular now from Sydney.’
     ‘Oh, it's not so much for people. They want the rail done so they can transport coal.  There's plenty of it out this way, so they say. I think coal mining will be a big industry here one day.’
     ‘Ugh.’ Norah turned up her nose. ‘Coal mining sounds like dirty, dark work. It'll take people away from farming, so it will, and that can't be good.’
     ‘There's room for both. The railway will be used for taking produce to Sydney as well. There's plenty of prosperous farming still going on around here but there's a lot of talk about mining, not just coal but copper and kerosene shale. There'll be big money in it, I reckon.’
     ‘You wouldn't think of mining, would you, Tom? You'd not leave the farm for such work?’ Norah’s heart sank.
     ‘Who knows what the future holds, Ma. I'd not be adverse to some extra work if the opportunity came. Don't worry, I'll not abandon the farm but there's the other boys coming along. We can't all stay on this little farm forever. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. They've still got to get the rail line down into the Lithgow valley if it's to be any use for carting coal. And that will be a grand feat. It's the biggest project of its kind in Australia…maybe the world. I'd be keen to have a look at it sometime, that's all.’
     Norah nodded tentatively.  She was too tired to think any more about it tonight and she had to trust Tom to make good decisions for their future. She couldn't imagine being anywhere but Wiseman's Creek with her little home and garden and their few animals, but Tom was right in that it could not support all the children into adulthood. It was too much to worry about now. She rose, kissed the top of Tom's head and left him with his newspaper spread before him. He was the strength of the family and she thanked God for him as she wearily settled herself beside William and Theresa on their narrow mattress.

At Stoney Creek the following day, James Pollard was trying to reason with his father about prospects other than their farm. 
     ‘It's a good offer, Pa. Mr Quinn's flock is huge and he needs shepherds. His boys are tied up with running the property. I could help out here on my days off and the money would be good.’
     ‘And who's to run this place, eh?’ Hamlet's face was creased with worry. ‘Johnny and I have our hands full even with your help. I'm getting on, son. I've turned sixty and this old body doesn't stand up to the work like it used to. I understand you want to make your own way in the world but I thought you'd want to take over this place. God knows I've worked hard enough to get it going. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't thought you boys would want it some day.’
     ‘What about you, Johnny?’ James looked at his brother. ‘You're eighteen now. What do you want to do in the future? We can't both run this place. It's not big enough to support two families.’
     ‘Families!’ Johnny spluttered. ‘I'm nowhere near thinking about a family. I don't know what I want yet but I'd like to get about a bit, see a bit more of the country, maybe work on some big properties too, get some experience. I don't know, Pa. It's too soon to make a decision.’
     ‘I know, boys. I don't want to push you. I just reckoned…well, I guess I assumed too much. There's only the two of you and sooner or later it'll be up to you what happens to this place. The girls will marry into one or another of the families around here, I imagine. I know this is not a big place but it's a good living for one or the other of you, at least.’
     ‘Who knows, Pa. Maybe one of the girls will marry a man who can work this farm –’
     ‘No.’ Hamlet's voice was firm. ‘I didn't build this up to have it taken over by someone outside the family. I've put my heart and soul into this place, and so has your mother, to provide a good future for our children. And if it's not to be yet, then I'll be working it until I drop if I have to.’ Hamlet's usual calm manner was agitated and both the boys felt uncomfortable.
     ‘What about if it were someone close…someone you could trust, like Tom. The way Elizabeth goes on about him I wouldn't be surprised if they end up hitched and Tom could work this –’
     ‘I'll not hear of that, James. And don't you go talking about it either. Elizabeth's still a child. And just because she's infatuated with Tom Kearns doesn't mean a thing. The last person who'll ever have a piece of my land is Michael Kearns. That'd be over my dead body.’
     James looked at the flashing darkness of his father's eyes and realised the depth of his hatred for Michael Kearns.
     ‘But Pa, he's been gone for ages now and who knows if he's ever coming back and anyhow, it would be Tom that'd be married to Elizabeth.’
     ‘I'll not hear of it and that's an end to it. We'll not discuss the farm again until you boys sort out what you want to do. If you're set on shepherding, James, then do it now.  See how you like working for someone else, and come back when you're ready to take up your responsibility here.’
     With that, Hamlet set his face toward the bush and headed out, not looking back.
     James and Johnny looked at each other blankly and there was an awkward silence.
     ‘I've been hearing some of the fellows talking about the money that's up for grabs on a stock drive,’ Johnny eventually said, his voice husky. ‘I had been thinking I'd like to try it for a while, but I guess I'll hold off a bit if you're taking this position with the Quinns. I don't want to hurt Pa, and I'm sure you don't either. I can wait a while yet.’
     James nodded and cuffed his younger brother on the shoulder playfully as they walked back into the shed.

Inside the house, a similar conversation was going on between Kathryn and Norah.
     ‘Tom didn't say he would go mining or working on the railway but he talks about it as if he might find it tempting one day. It made me sick to my stomach, Kathryn. I've always thought he loved it here like I do and that he'd take over our place and build it up, for God knows it's only a small concern now. Joseph and Mick would never take responsibility for the farm. I don't know what they'll do, sure I don't. I guess I hoped they'd work with Tom, at least until they grow up a bit and then maybe they'd find work somewhere. Perhaps even in one of these mines he's talking about…although that's hard to imagine. But they'll have to work for someone. They're too much like Michael to work for themselves.’
     ‘Come now, Norah. Tom's got a good head on his shoulders. He wouldn't make a decision without considering you and the other children. It's not in him.’
     ‘Perhaps, but I made so many bad decisions…and you don't really know they're bad until down the track.’ Norah felt heavy hearted.
     ‘What decisions have you made that have been so bad?’
     ‘Marrying Michael was no stroke of genius, was it now? It seemed so right at the time. I had such hopes. Now I wonder what on earth I've brought my children to. I wonder if that's why Rebecca has gone, why I've lost her. Is this what I've brought on myself?’
     ‘And just what have you brought your children to? A healthy life in a land filled with opportunity is what. You've taught them to read and write, to know right from wrong…and yes, to be careful who they marry, for it can make life easier or harder but that's a good lesson to learn. So you didn't get it right all of the time! You're learning along the way. As for Rebecca leaving you…I should box your ears for talking such rubbish. Rebecca's made her own choices and she'll have to learn by them, sure she will.  And thank God she has more choices than we did to start with, for ours were few enough. You've got to trust Tom to make his decisions. He wouldn't leave you.’
     ‘Leave? Where would Tom be leaving to?’ Elizabeth's voice broke into the room.  She had walked through the door with her apron full of fresh eggs and Norah thought the lot would hit the floor any moment as her arms sagged to match her face.
     ‘Here, watch what you're about, my girl,’ her mother said. ‘Hold onto those eggs and don't be butting in to the conversation like that.’
     ‘Sorry, Ma.’ Elizabeth looked down at the load in her apron and straightened it up.  She carefully removed the eggs and placed them in the basket on the table, her furtive glance going from her mother to Norah, the silence clearly disturbing her. 
     Norah saw panic in the pretty brown eyes. Elizabeth was growing into a very attractive young woman, she realised, and there had never been any hiding of the fact that she adored Tom. But now, what Norah saw was not a sweet child looking up to a big brother figure. She was a sixteen-year-old, and quite clearly in love. Norah gasped at the recognition. She wondered how Tom felt about the girl and if he had any idea of Elizabeth's feelings.
     The eggs all safely in the basket, Elizabeth pushed wisps of pale brown hair from her forehead, pinning them under the scarf that was wound around her head and tied behind her neck. Her hair fell to her waist, shining and thick.  As she straightened her apron, Norah could see the budding of the girl's womanhood, the shapely figure and generous hips. Kathryn had often joked about her daughter being enamoured of Tom but Norah had never taken it too seriously. Now she could see that it was very serious indeed.
     ‘Please, Mrs Kearns,’ Elizabeth pleaded. ‘Tom isn't thinking of going away, is he?’ There were tears welling in the girl's eyes.
     ‘No, Elizabeth. Tom has not talked about going away. He's just taken an interest in the new rail line that's being built east of Lithgow. He thinks that mining for coal will be a big industry here one day and I wondered if he'd want to try his hand at it, that's all.’
     ‘Oh.’ Elizabeth sighed deeply and sank into a chair beside her mother.
     Kathryn reached out and stroked her daughter's face. ‘Such a worrier, poor pet. Just like your Pa. Now you get about your chores, eh.’
     ‘Interesting times ahead there,’ Norah said quietly when Elizabeth left the room.
     ‘And haven't I said so often enough?’ Kathryn smiled knowingly. 
     ‘You have. I suppose it's all sneaking up on me too fast…this having grown up children.’
     ‘You've done a good job, Norah. If you hadn't taught him to read, Tom would hardly know about the rail line and the coal mining, would he now? You wanted him to have choices and now you'll have to trust him with the education you've helped him get.’
     They were interrupted again as the back door was pushed open roughly and Hamlet strode in. He went straight to the kettle without acknowledging the women at the table.  Kathryn looked at her husband quizzically. ‘You look tired, dear,’ she ventured. ‘Sit here a bit with us, why don't you.’
     Hamlet dropped into the chair his daughter had just vacated, the tea he had poured sloshing dangerously in his cup. ‘It's hard work, this farm, Kathryn. Perhaps it's not worth it after all.’ He let out a deep breath.
     ‘After all what?’
     ‘What if no one wants it after all the hard years of work?’ He sucked in a mouthful of hot tea, his eyes staring straight ahead.
     ‘Is everybody melancholy about the future for some reason today?’ Kathryn exclaimed. When Hamlet didn't respond she went on. ‘I want this place. It's our dream.  If no one wants it beyond us, then so be it. We've made a good life for ourselves and our children. They have opportunities that we didn't, freedoms we were denied. Tis enough, Hamlet. Be proud. Be happy with what you've achieved. I am.’ She reached across the table and took his hand firmly as it lay on the boards; large, scarred and ingrained with dirt.
     ‘Hamlet looked up into his wife's eyes, and squeezed her hand. ‘You are a good woman, Kathryn Pollard.’
     ‘Good enough.’ She grinned. 
     Norah watched quietly, envying the easy love between her two friends. She thanked God that she had found them again, for she knew she would not have been able to stay on the land without them. 

The following Sunday, the little church at O'Connell held a Spring Picnic.The families all supported one another, sharing what they had, being glad for each other in the good times and offering help in the struggles.  Everyone knew that life on the land in
Australia was tough, unpredictable and sometimes heartbreaking. But the blessings were also great and on days like this there was a spirit of celebration. 
     In a quiet corner of the yard, under a huge fig tree with spreading branches which almost hid the couple from view, Tom and Elizabeth sat among the roots, their backs pushed into the curving wood. They didn't often get a chance to sit quietly, for it seemed Tom was always working and while Elizabeth welcomed even the chance to watch him chop wood or mend fences or dig gardens, she cherished these moments when she had his complete attention. 
     ‘I was so worried,’ Elizabeth said demurely, ‘when I heard your Ma say you were thinking about something else in the future…something other than the farm. I can't imagine you anywhere but on the farm, Tom.’
     ‘It wouldn't matter what work I did, Lizzie.’ He only called her that when they were alone. It was their secret signal that there was something special between them. ‘I'd always want to live on a farm, even if it was small; to have a garden and some animals, even if it was just chickens and pigs and such. There's not so much money in cattle and sheep, you know, not unless you have lots, and I can't see me having enough, not unless I made money some other way and then bought something bigger.’
     ‘I see.’ Elizabeth looked at him with total acceptance. Everything Tom said was perfectly true. 
     ‘Where would you like to live, Lizzie…eventually, I mean?’
     ‘I don't mind at all, Tom, as long as it's near you.’ She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. She knew she often sounded like a child when she spoke to him and she did so want him to see that she was becoming a woman, but her heart just failed her when she was close to him and she could hardly think at all.
     ‘Or with me?’ he questioned.
     Elizabeth felt her heart skip a beat and she knew her mouth would not work properly if she spoke. She nodded, hoping he would understand what her heart was saying.
     In answer, Tom reached out and took her hand, holding it lightly on his knee. When her hand trembled in his, he smiled and squeezed a lttle tighter. He knew how she felt and she knew he felt the same. They had always had this silent understanding. They didn't need a lot of words, but they were aware that now he was a man and she a young woman, there needed to be words spoken between them so that their intentions would be clear to everyone.
     ‘We'll always be together, Lizzie,’ he said. ‘Wherever we are, we will be together…right?’
     ‘Yes,’ she whispered. Her heart was throbbing under her pinafore and she thought everyone would be able to see what she felt for Tom Kearns and she didn't care for now that he had told her how it would be, nothing else mattered.
     Tom pushed his dark hair back from his forehead with his free hand and then rose from their tree root seat, gently pulling Elizabeth to her feet. He looked briefly towards the scattered crowd around the church yard and, apparently confident no one was taking any notice of them, he leaned down and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Elizabeth thought her stomach would drop right out of her onto the ground. She hardly felt her feet touch the grass as they wandered slowly, reluctantly, back to the front of the church where families were gathering together, packing up their baskets and rugs and saying their farewells to friends.
     Suddenly, Elizabeth felt Tom drop her hand from his and when she looked up, she saw that her father was glaring at Tom from the front step of the church. His face was dark with something Elizabeth had never seen before. She shuddered at the sight of him and turned to Tom, her dreamy smile creasing into a worried frown.
     ‘What's the matter with Pa? Have you had words?’
     ‘No, Lizzie. We haven't, but I fear we will soon. Don't worry. I'll sort it out.’ He touched her arm reassuringly and walked towards Hamlet, his face calm and determined.  But before he reached the step where Hamlet stood, seemingly frozen, Kathryn called her husband to help her with her baskets and he moved quickly away.

That night Elizabeth lay sobbing on the mattress in the small bedroom she shared with Harriet and Annie, as she listened to her parents' voices getting louder and louder.
     ‘I can't believe you've been so blind that you haven't seen what's as plain as the nose on your face and has been since she was a small child.’
     ‘A child enamoured of a boy down the road is one thing, but this is another thing altogether. If you think that a daughter of mine will ever become a Kearns you're sadly mistaken for I'll never accept it…never.’
     ‘And what would you be doing then, answer me that? Denying her the only happiness she's ever longed for?’
     ‘I'll be saving her from a life like Norah's, that's what I'll be doing, and she'll thank me for it one day, you'll see.’
     ‘You're a fool, Hamlet, if you think she'd ever forgive you for keeping her from Tom. Not that you'd be able to forever. Tom will not give up on her, nor will he treat her like his father treats Norah. It's not in him.’
     ‘That's just it. It is in him. He's Michael Kearns' son and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Eventually, it'll come out in him, you mark my words.’
     ‘Tosh and nonsense, for he's nothing like his father. He's seen through his father since he was a small boy. He'll never be like Michael.’
     On and on it went, until Elizabeth thought she would scream if they didn't stop. But then they did, for her mother and father could never keep fighting each other for very long. She heard them apologising for the yelling and then their voices became soft and Elizabeth could not make out what they were saying. She fell asleep, praying that God would do something to show her father that Tom was the best man in the world and the only man she could ever love.

To be continued....

Carol Preston


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen

Stoney Creek, Christmas 1863.

What do I do now, Kathryn?’ Norah was beside herself. She had gone into Kelso a week after Michael left in October. It had been such a lovely day that she’d decided to go after church, to see Rebecca, perhaps talk her into coming home on the following Tuesday so they could have some time together. When the innkeeper told her that Rebecca had gone without giving notice or any indication where she was heading, Norah guessed that she had gone with Michael. 
     ‘She always wanted to go with him, Kathryn, but he'd never even considered taking her and this time he was determined to go after those bushrangers. So what would he have done with her? And why haven't I heard anything?’
     ‘Try to stay calm, Norah. Rebecca's nearly twenty, hardly a child. I doubt she'd have stayed with Michael. His antics are unlikely to keep her interest. Perhaps she didn't even go with him. It may have just been a coincidence that she left the same day Michael took off. There's every reason to be hopeful that she's all right. Bad news finds its way home quickly, sure it does. And you know Michael always turns up eventually…more's the pity, I say.’
     ‘I'm not worried about Michael. He'll be off on one of his wild goose chases. I just don't want Rebecca getting herself into trouble. I just hate to think about it.’
     ‘Come on now. You'll make yourself sick. You've the other children to think about.  Poor wee William's distressed with all this weeping. We're here to celebrate Christmas.  Let it be a comfort that God knows where Rebecca is and He's not going to be taking His eyes off her, sure He's not.’
     ‘You've such trust, Kathryn. I used to be able to hope for the best, to believe everything would work out but I'm worn out with it, so I am. I hoped for so long that Michael would become the man his family needs, and all for nothing.’
     ‘Sure, it's made your heart sick to be hoping anything for Michael. But there is still reason for hope. Without hope we can't go on. You gave me hope when I could find no reason for it, Norah. Now it's my turn to do that for you. But tis not Michael we can put our hope in. Tis in what is good and right that we hope…ultimately in God, for what else can we be certain of? Whatever happens He's going to help you through. You've proven that to be true before and it will be now, sure it will.’
     ‘I do try, Kathryn. I want to believe for my children. I can see already how different Tom is to his father. And Mary's such a sensible girl, not a bit like Rebecca. That gives me hope for the future.’
     ‘Then let's celebrate that.’
     Kathryn turned towards the door as she spoke, and smiled as Hamlet led a troupe of children inside. They were giggling and chattering together.
     ‘They had been watching a pair of wattle birds feeding their young in the nest,’ Hamlet said. ‘The mother and father take turns to drop nectar from the grevilleas into their tiny beaks.’
     ‘They're nearly ready to fly,’ Harriet exclaimed as the children settled at the table.  ‘Annie wants to name them but I told her they'll be gone in a week and we won't be able to tell them from the mother and father. Isn't that right, Pa?’
     ‘It is.’ Hamlet nodded, patting his daughter's head. ‘Now, how's that turkey going?  I've been watching him for months and he's given me more than a few nips. It's my turn now to have a piece of him.’
     All the children burst into laughter, jostling each other for a space around the table.
     ‘Pa can say grace and start to carve while I put the rest of the vegetables out then.’ Kathryn slapped her husband playfully on the shoulder. ‘And don't forget to ask a blessing on Rebecca, dear.’ She smiled at Norah who rose quickly to help with the dinner, hiding the tears that welled in her eyes. 

It was September the following year before Michael returned, empty handed as usual, except for a few trinkets. Norah was so disturbed that he did not have Rebecca with him that she could barely speak to him.
     Mary was not as impressed with her father's gifts as Rebecca had been when she was young and Tom excused himself, saying he had a lot of work to do. Michael had come home late the night before and fallen into a noisy sleep almost immediately, but now Norah knew he would expect the family to be ready to hear about his adventures.  Joseph and Mick would likely be happy to sit through the tale, for it would be a story full of danger and heroism which at six and seven they still found compelling, whether it was true or not. Norah kept her attention on William as she fed him porridge and tried to wait until Michael had finished entertaining his sons. He had said nothing about Rebecca but when he started on the story of his days as a hostage of the bushrangers in Robinson's hotel, her heart began to race and she imagined her daughter being tied up and ravaged by a gang of ruffians. She could hold her tongue no longer.
     ‘Where's Rebecca, Michael? She went with you, didn't she? I know she did. Now where is she?’ Her voice was loud with fear and the two young boys at the table looked shocked.
     ‘Ma,’ Joseph whined. ‘We want to hear the story.’
     ‘The story can wait,’ Norah said firmly, glaring at her husband.
     The tone of her voice quietened the boys but Michael still sat silently, as if hoping his sons would insist he continue. When it was clear he wasn't going to avoid an explanation, he sighed deeply and looked sheepishly at Norah.
     ‘She hid in my cart, luv. I didn't mean for her to come. I told her not to – ’
     ‘Where is she?’ Norah demanded.
     ‘I don't know,’ Michael admitted, his voice flat.                     
     ‘You don't know?’ Norah's voice was rising again and the boys' eyes widened. They rarely heard their mother raise her voice.
     ‘She was with me ’til Canowindra. I couldn't leave her in Bathurst, now, could I?’ he said plaintively, as if he was in no way at fault. ‘I was lookin' to find her somewhere safe ’til I could bring her 'ome, sure I was.’
     ‘And you call that a safe place?’
     ‘The gang didn't want to 'arm anyone. We were there for three days an' Rebecca was still there when I left. She said she'd wait for me, workin' for the Robinsons. Only when I got back she was gone.’ Michael's voice trailed off.
     ‘Mrs Robinson said she'd worked for two weeks an' then left…said she was comin' home. So I thought that's what she'd done. The incident with the bushrangers scared her…at least at first…an' so I thought she'd 'eaded for 'ome. It was about eight weeks after I left when I went back to Canowindra. I guessed she was well and truly back 'ere…an' I…well, I 'ad things to be about – ’
     ‘You had things to be about?’ Norah's tone was steely cold now. ‘You had no idea where your daughter was, did you? But you just went about your…whatever you do…and left her to suffer whatever she might have gotten herself into. This is the last straw, Michael. I can't forgive you this. I can't.’ Norah was crying now and she gathered William up from his chair and rushed outside.
     ‘She's not a girl no more,’ Michael called as she headed across the grass. ‘She’s a grown woman now. She can take care of 'erself, sure she can.’
     Norah could sense by his voice that he only half believed that himself.

Tom was chopping wood furiously when Norah rushed up to him with William on her hip. He stopped the axe in mid air and let it drop to the ground.
     ‘What is it, Ma? What's he done now?’
     ‘It's Rebecca,’ she sobbed. ‘Your father left her at some hotel out west and we have no idea where she is…whether she's alive or dead. What are we to do?’
     Tom put his arm around her shoulder. ‘There's nothing we can do about Rebecca, Ma. You know she wanted to get away from here. She'll have found herself work …or something. She's not one to go without what she wants. Please, Ma, calm down.’
     Norah laid her head against her son's chest. She realised he was head and shoulders above her now, taller than his father. She felt his strong arm holding her up. At eighteen he was more of a man than Michael had ever been. She could depend on him. Perhaps she could trust his judgement about this.
     ‘Do you think so?’
     ‘Sure I do. Rebecca's always been a mystery to me. I don't know what she wants. But she has to go and find it, Ma. She wasn't happy here, you know that. I could search for months and never find her. It's a big country. But word will come, you'll see. We'll find out sooner or later. It seems to me it was inevitable that Rebecca was going to take off.’
     ‘And you, Tom? Are you happy here?’ Norah sniffed as her tears subsided and she stood back and looked up at her son.
     His dark hair hung about his face.  He wasn't a handsome lad but his face was gentle and soft. It belied the obvious strength of his hardened body, his work soiled hands.
     ‘My life is here, Ma, with you and with this land. I'm happy, yes.’ He chucked William under the chin, bringing a grin to the child's face.
     Norah sighed thankfully. She wiped her eyes and hugged William to her, smiling through her wet eyes.
     ‘Tis fine, little one. Your big brother is right. We must let Rebecca find her way and  pray that God will take care of her.’ She pushed her hair back from her face, capturing escaping curls from the clip at the back of her neck. ‘I've carrots to dig, so I have, and then I'll make us a bread pudding with plum jam, eh? We'll not be moping around any more, so we won't.’
     Tom chuckled at her words, then glanced at the house. Norah saw his smile turn to a frown. Now his father was back, Tom would struggle. She knew he felt nothing but irritation for his father and she knew the feeling was mutual.

By May, Norah was pregnant again. She had not welcomed Michael's attention in their bed but had endured it for the sake of peace. Being close to forty, she was a little surprised to find she had conceived another child. But with the garden now producing well enough to feed them adequately, and the bit of meat they were able to trap or buy from the sale of their eggs and fruit in O'Connell, she was confident that they could manage another member of the family.
     It would take her mind off Rebecca, she reasoned, to have another little one to care for. Tom and Mary were a great help to her, taking over the household chores when she needed them to. Joseph and Mick were quite a handful, being young boys who wanted to run and play from daylight to dusk and both being inclined to be headstrong and reckless. William was a placid three-year-old, content to be with his mother, fossicking in the grass around the garden as she worked, or on the floor of the hut when she was cooking and cleaning. Norah reckoned she had a lot to be grateful for and was in a happy frame of mind the next time she visited Kathryn.
     ‘Tis only the five of them left to be teaching now. And William's still more likely to eat the pages than notice there's words on them,’ she chuckled. ‘I've taught the others all I know.’
     The two women watched Joseph and Mick, Harriet and Annie, all now between seven and eleven, as they wrote their letters with varying degrees of concentration and enjoyment, the girls definitely displaying more of both than the boys. 
     ‘And tis enough, sure it is,’ Kathryn said. ‘The older ones can read and write now and what more could they need that they won't learn from life itself?’
     ‘Yes, I can see Joseph and Mick are not going to have the love of reading that Tom has. They'll have to learn much from life itself, I think. They're all different, aren't they?’
     ‘To be sure. Tis a mystery how they all differ, each one precious in his or her own way. Soon enough we'll be seeing them making families of their own and we'll be grandparents, so we will.’
     ‘Oh, tosh.’ Norah giggled. ‘Here I am having a baby and you're thinking about being a grandparent.’
     ‘Don't look now but Tom is nearly nineteen and our James twenty. What were you doing at that age, tell me that? Having Rebecca is what. Oh, I'm sorry, Norah. I didn't mean to remind you. Have you heard anything at all?’
     ‘Nothing. I give her to God every night. I'm at peace about her, as much as I can be without knowing if she's...’
     ‘Don't think sad things. Just trust and hold on. And what about Michael? How is he at home this time?’
     ‘The same. Restless, sometimes funny and sweet, sometimes grumpy and critical.  Tom finds it hard. They don't get on at all and I can't blame Tom. Joseph and Mick are more like Michael, I'm afraid.’ Norah lowered her voice, checking that the boys were still engaged in their writing. ‘They wrestle and laugh with him. They believe everything he says. They seem to easily see life the way he does, which bothers me a lot. They go out into the bush with him already, just wandering, on the pretence of getting firewood or hunting for possums. Sometimes they come back with something but often I think Michael is just indulging their…or his need to wander about aimlessly, avoiding whatever work should be done. Mary scolds them all severely about it but they just laugh at her. Tom holds his tongue but I think he'd prefer Michael wasn't there so he could teach the boys to be more responsible.’
     ‘You've a trial with him, to be sure.’
     The women were interrupted by Elizabeth coming through the back door. ‘Did Tom come, Mrs Kearns?’ she said hopefully.
     ‘Tom is working at home,’ Norah answered. ‘He's mending fences today. We've had kangaroos breaking down some of them and the chickens are getting out. He did send this book for you though. Someone gave it to him at church and he thought you might like to read it now that he's finished.’
     ‘Oh, thank you.’ Elizabeth took the book and held it to her heart.
     Kathryn shook her head and smiled. As Elizabeth disappeared into the bedroom her mother's voice followed her. ‘Don't start reading that now, dear. You've chickens to feed, remember.’  
     When Elizabeth had deposited the book in some private place and left the house again, her mother was still smiling.
     ‘She's been smitten with Tom for as long as I can remember.’
     ‘She's only fourteen, Kathryn. Sure, you'll have us grandmothers before our time with your speculations.’
     ‘I suppose tis because I'll not have any more of my own that I'm looking forward to the next lot, that's all.’ She laughed.

      ‘Looks like your chances to catch Ben Hall and his gang have run out,’ Tom said.
     Michael kept his eyes averted. It annoyed him to have his son reading to him about bushrangers.
     The lantern light was dim and Tom held the paper close to his face as he read the article. ‘Hall was surrounded by police in bushland near Forbes last month and shot dead. Seems his whereabouts was betrayed to police by an informer. John Gilbert, one of his gang, was also shot recently by police. And this says that Mad Dan Morgan went south into Victoria, where he was wreaking havoc but a station hand shot him down in April just as he was about to get on his horse and escape again.  It seems their time comes, sooner or later.’
     ‘There'll be more, so there will. There's always them that are ready to take up where others leave off when there's money to be 'ad,' Michael grumbled. He wished he had been in town and heard this news at the pub.   
     ‘Even Frank Gardiner is out of action if I remember rightly,’ Tom continued. ‘He's the one who was jailed last year in Sydney…thirty two years I think he got. He's been hiding out in the Weddin ranges, near Forbes, doing lots of hold-ups, I've read. Well, now he's away for a long time, so he won't be bothering anybody. And he won't be luring people to catch him for the reward either.’
     Michael upended his mug and finished off his tea before heading outside for a smoke. He was irritated and restless. His young sons had all but fallen asleep at the table listening to Tom babble on about old news. He didn't want them to think there was nothing out there to chase after any more. There were always adventures to be had. One just had to go looking for them and if Norah wasn't so close to having another child, he would take to the roads again. One day, he would take his sons with him…not Tom, but Joseph and Mick. Young William was shaping up to be another soft headed boy like Tom but in the other two he could see the signs of real men and he would not let anything get in the way of that. 

Theresa Kearns was born on the 19th of November, 1865. She was baptised in the new Church of St Francis in O'Connell, one of the first babies to be dedicated there, which was a thrill to Norah. There was also excitement about the small convent and a school house where a group of Franciscan nuns were to hold classes for the local children.  Michael took no interest in the new church but was enamoured of his new daughter, who had large dark eyes and silky black hair, promising another Irish doll he could shower with gifts and charm into adoring him.
     Joseph and Mick practised every boyish, rebellious act they could think of to draw their father's attention away from Theresa, who they saw as a messy brat and a threat to their attachment to their hero. But by the middle of Winter, Michael's interest in everything at home waned and he was ready again to seek out the promise of excitement, danger and unearned rewards.

By Spring, the family had settled into a more peaceful routine and although Joseph and Mick were sullen and grumpy for a month or so after their father's departure, Norah relaxed into the security of being able to plan her days and take more control of her family's wellbeing and activities.
     ‘No, you'll not be going off looking for tiger cats, Joseph, for you've never caught one yet, sure you haven't. If you want Tom to teach you to set the traps properly, then ask him, for he's happy to show you. Then you check them regularly and wait for whatever animal God sees fit to give us. Wandering about in the woods with a stick is a waste of time.’
     ‘Yes, you will be coming to Pollards today, Mick, for you've to learn to read and practise your writing even if you don't feel like it. One day you'll thank me for teaching you, sure you will, for you'll be able to get a good job and make a living for your own family.’
     ‘We will all be going to church this morning, boys, for you're definitely not staying here alone and it's time you took notice of what's being said at church. You can't escape God, you know. He's watching over all of us and the time will come when you'll be wanting to talk to Him about your troubles and you'll be wishing you knew Him better, sure you will.’
     All of Norah's directives were received with the squirming, whining and resistance characteristic of young boys but Norah felt able to deal with it now that her husband's influence was fading. She knew that Michael would return in his own good time but she was determined to make the most of this space for sanity and order in their lives. 

To be continued...

Carol Preston

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

He who cannot forgive breaks the 
bridge  over which he himself must pass. 
George Herbert.

Wiseman's Creek, October, 1863

Just as well you weren't after that mob of bushrangers who held up the Lachlan Gold Escort last year.’ Tom was reading through his newspaper articles and trying to make conversation with his father.
     His mother had asked him over and over to make an effort and he really did try but it was hard for him to find anything in common with his father, who’d been at home now for most of the year. He’d disappeared for only short periods, always returning with stories of chasing bushrangers as a police officer, but Tom found them hard to believe and there was never any evidence that he had caught a criminal. Any money he brought back was meagre and, at sixteen, Tom now thought of himself as the man of the house.  He did the greatest load of heavy work and what he couldn't get around to, his mother did most of. His father was an expert at planning to work and then somehow being somewhere else. Tom had long ago given up the idea of respecting his father. 
     ‘And why would that be, eh?’ Michael muttered without looking up from his plate.  
     ‘Because three of the escort police were wounded in a shoot-out and the bushrangers escaped with the lot…fourteen thousand pound in gold and notes, it says here.’
     ‘Is that so? Fourteen thousand, eh? Quite a haul. Where was that, now?’
     ‘A place called Eugowra, twenty-seven miles from Forbes. It says as soon as the news reached Forbes, eleven troopers, two black trackers and several volunteers set off after the bushrangers but they found no trace of them.’
     ‘There you go, then. P'raps if they'd 'ad me there, they'd 'ave found the blighters.’ Michael smirked. 
     ‘It was Frank Gardiner's gang.’ Tom continued to read, more to himself now, having made what he considered a reasonable attempt to converse with his father. ‘Townspeople are outraged because they believe some of the settlers are feeding information to Gardiner and misleading police whenever they appear to be on the trail of the bushrangers. It seems Gardiner has friends in Forbes who tip him off whenever there are rich pickings to be made. Can you imagine that, Ma? Why would settlers be that stupid?’
     Norah was scrubbing plates in a small tub of water on the sideboard beside the stove.  She paused and turned to Tom. ‘I can't imagine, but there's a lot that people get up to that I can't understand. I suppose they're getting some kind of payoff from the thieves.  It's sad that everyone can't just get on with making a decent living.’
     ‘An' I suppose that's aimed at me?’ Michael snarled, slurping the last of the tea from his mug.
     ‘I'm merely making a point, so I am. There's enough land here for everyone to make a living from it, whether it's digging for gold they choose, or grazing cattle or growing crops. I can't see why men have to rob others, is all I'm saying.’ Norah winced as she spoke, knowing that her husband would take offence no matter how she put it.
     And wasn't that his own fault, Tom thought, when he spent his life scheming about ways to take what others worked for. Although he hated to think of his father as a bushranger, when it came right down to it, there was not much difference. 
     Norah put her head down and continued scrubbing the plates. 
     ‘An' I suppose you'd be 'appier if you was married to one of the Foleys eh?’ Michael sneered. ‘Two of 'em in prison now, sure they are.’
     Norah's eyebrows raised questioningly as she glanced at Tom who she knew would have the truth of it.’
     ‘It's true, Ma,’ he confirmed. ‘Fabian raided the Chinese camp at Campbell's River and was sent to prison a few months ago…for ten years. And John Foley was part of the gang that held up the Mudgee mail coach in July. You remember everyone was talking about it when he was arrested at their house in August? He got fifteen years hard labour and he's been taken to Darlinghurst goal.’
     ‘How terrible for the boys' parents.’ Norah sighed heavily.
     ‘Prob'ly put 'em up to it.’ Michael smirked. ‘There was five ‘undred pound in the offerin' to anyone who found the bank notes they stole. I did try, but there's another chance got away from me, more's the pity.’
     ‘Dear God, Michael. Please stay away from the Foleys.’ Norah flung soap from her hands. ‘That man who broke in here had something to do with the Foleys from what Rebecca said. Tis frightening to think we've such men so close by. Why can't we just live a normal life? That's what I pray for every night.’
     Michael shook his head as he rose from his chair. ‘I'll show you all one o' these day, sure I will,’ he snarled as he stormed out.
     ‘I'm sorry, Ma,’ Tom said. ‘I didn't mean to set him off.’
     ‘Tis alright. I know you do your best.’

Two days later, Michael was packing his cart. Norah knew it would do no good to try and talk him out of it. He’d been restless all Winter and she had known it would not be long before he was heading out. 
     ‘Ben Hall's mob 'ave been seen in the Bathurst area. Bold as brass, they are. Think they'll not get caught, but that's because they 'aven't 'ad the right people after 'em.  There's a big reward on their 'eads. Maybe it'll be me what gets it this time. That'll show the young nob who's a man.’
     ‘This makes no sense, Michael,’ Norah pleaded. ‘They carry guns and they're not a bit shy in using them. You're putting yourself in danger, and for what? Let the police handle it?’
     ‘You've no faith in me, luv. I know that but you'll see. I'll bring you back somethin' real pretty, eh?’ He cupped her face, kissed her nose lightly and then ran his hands over her still coppery curls. ‘I'll drop in an' see Rebecca on the way through. I'll need a quick drink by the time I get to Kelso.’ He laughed loudly, clearly excited to be off on another jaunt.
     Norah shook her head in resignation and headed inside, eighteen-month-old William weighing heavy on her hip. ‘Tis a sight you'll have to get used to, little one,’ she said, snuggling her face into his soft brown curls. ‘He'll be back…eventually.’
     William's attention was taken by the raucous laughter of a kookaburra on a branch above them. The sight of his father disappearing down the track was of no concern to him at all.

In the laundry of the Kelso Inn, Rebecca pushed dark ringlets of hair from her face and wiped away the beads of sweat that dripped from her forehead. She had had enough of washing sheets to last her a lifetime. If it weren't for the fun that she had at the bar in the evenings, she would have left her job months before. There was nearly always somebody interesting hanging about the pub, heading for the goldfields or on their way into Bathurst to pick up the money from their diggings. Some were heading further out to the western parts of New South Wales, where new towns were springing up. Some were heading into Sydney to spend their newfound wealth or to see the city for the first time. Any one of these options sounded good to Rebecca. She longed for the night when there would be some young man who needed a companion. She was not interested in marriage but she was sure many of the men who passed through Kelso were just as disinterested in settling down. There was still too much of the country to explore and too many opportunities to take up to be thinking about settling down. 
     It had never occurred to her for a moment that the man she was waiting for might be her father but when he appeared that afternoon and she heard his plans, she quickly surmised that this might be her chance. 

‘This might be the time for both of us, eh?’ Michael said to the man he met in the bar and with whom he had spent a pleasant hour, both boosting their own life stories into tales of success and excitement. He had earlier found his daughter in the laundry and told her he was on his way into Bathurst and perhaps beyond. He had bushrangers to catch and a reward to pocket and he had a strong feeling that it was all going to come off for him this time. He had given her a quick hug and told her that her mother would be right proud of her for sticking to the job this time. She should go home for one of her days off, though, he had urged, for her mother would like to see her once in a while.  And no, it was certainly not an option for her to be coming with him, for hadn't he told her time and time again that his work was not anything a young woman could be part of.  With that he’d headed into the bar and by the time he came out, it was too late to find Rebecca again. He clicked the reins and turned his horse toward Bathurst, singing an Irish ditty to himself and enjoying the feeling of the spring breeze on his face. 
     It was almost evening when he pulled up at the Black Bull Inn. He knew it was the place to hear the latest news about the bushrangers. It was where all the Cobb and Co coaches came and went from. Those who stopped over on their way west or east had gathered gossip from fellow travellers and were always ready to share over the bar, all hoping to have the latest and most dramatic news.
     He had paid for a room and was heading back to the cart to unpack a few things for the night when he saw a figure emerging from the covered pile behind the bench seat.  Rebecca's curls exploded around her head as she shook herself and started to climb out from among the bags and boxes. 
     ‘What the blazes?’ he yelled. ‘How did you…? Why I ought to tan yer hide, girl.  What do yer think you're doin'?’
     ‘Don't have a fit, Pa. I told you I wanted to come this time an' I'm old enough to be out on me own so just consider it a lift. I'll not bother you. I can find me own way from 'ere.’ With that she flounced into the Inn, dragging a small carpet bag with her and leaving her father stunned by the side of his cart.
     When he had gathered his thoughts sufficiently, he followed her inside and found her at the bar asking about work.
     ‘Sorry, lass,’ the bartender said, shaking his head. ‘I don't think there's anything here at the moment, though a girl as pretty as you shouldn't have too much trouble.’
     He was a large man, his apron dragged across his bulging stomach. His face was round and red with a dark moustache dividing the upper and lower parts of it like a bridge. He was making it quite clear that he’d love to have Rebecca working with him, but it was not his prerogative to hire and fire. He didn't see Michael approaching him from the side, nor the hand that grabbed his apron and spun him sideways.
     ‘Get yer eyes off me daughter, yer slimy pig. She's not fer sale, yer know.’
     ‘Pa, for goodness sake,’ Rebecca screeched. ‘Don't go on so. I can take care of myself, sure I can.’
     ‘You've no idea what it's like in a place like this, girl,’ Michael retorted loudly. ‘Now you'll be spendin' the night in a room 'ere, and tomorrow we'll be headin' right back to Kelso an' that's the end of it.’
     Rebecca held her tongue. She glared at him blackly, but seemed unwilling to fight with him in public.
     That night, Michael heard numerous versions of the audacity of Hall's gang, who had ridden into town that very day, right down Howick street to Pedrotta's gun shop and tried to buy a revolver. When they couldn't get what they wanted they had ridden away, but one of the horses had blundered over a heap of metal, drawing attention to the riders.  When somebody recognised them as bushrangers, the screaming and shooting had begun. The police were alerted and the chase was on. The gang escaped into the bush but a full scale hunt was on by morning, for everyone was sure they'd be headed towards Forbes, where it was said that the bushrangers had friends and hideouts. There was no time to waste for any who were after this mob.  

‘You can come with me as far as the nearest small town an' I'll put you up at the inn.’ Michael gave Rebecca options early the following morning. ‘I'm not keen for you to be 'ere, for there's too many possibilities for you to get yerself into trouble. One of the smaller towns would be better, is what I'm thinkin'. And when I'm done with this, I'll be takin' you right back 'ome, an' you can think yerself lucky if I don't clip yer ears good an' proper.’
     Rebecca listened quietly, looking at him demurely. She knew her father would not know how to deal with her, that he would rant and rave for a while, then do whatever suited his own plans best. Going on to another town seemed a good option to her, for the further she was from home, the less likely he would get around to taking her back and by the time he was ready to do so, she would have made her own plans. 
     They bought a loaf of bread and some dried meat and headed west. By mid morning, they were in Blayney and stopped for something to eat, but there was nowhere suitable for Rebecca to stay, so they pushed on. 
     ‘There’s little between here an’ Canowindra,’ Michael said heavily, ‘an’ I’m guessin’ this is the way the Hall's gang’s headed, but I doubt they’d be interested in small pickin’ from us.’
     ‘Havin’ me with you is likely a good thing, Pa, for haven’t I heard you say Ben Hall is a decent man at heart? He wouldn’t harm a man and his child, would he?’ She grinned cheekily.
     Her father shrugged, looking a little unsure. But he continued on. They passed through large tracts of land where dead, grey trees stood in ghostly form, the sight of them causing a shiver of doubt to run up Rebecca's spine.
     ‘Ring barked, they been.’ Her father nodded at the trees. ‘The settlers want 'em to die to make more room for cattle. An' they reckon the gold miners are makin' a mess of the creeks. Not as bad as this, eh?’
     Rebecca smiled weakly. It didn't look at all inviting and the occasional rickety settler's cottage, surrounded by straggling cows, did nothing to raise her spirit. She hoped that the next town they came to would have some prospects of excitement for her future.
     It was late that night when they pulled into Robinson's Hotel at Canowindra.  Michael made arrangements for two rooms and they both had a quick bite to eat and headed for bed. No sooner had Rebecca's head hit the pillow than there was a terrible commotion coming from downstairs and she sat bolt upright. There had been two old men in the bar when she and her father headed upstairs. The owner of the hotel had just been cleaning up, ready to close. She couldn't imagine who or what could be making the noise she was hearing. Climbing out of bed, she pulled on her vest and pressed her ear to the door. She wondered where her father was and for the first time in a long time, she wished he was by her side. 
     She could hear voices yelling. A shot rang out, which frightened her so much she ran and jumped back into her bed. Then there was a loud banging on her door. It must be her father, she assumed, and ran to open it. A grizzly face pushed itself into the gap causing her to jump back in shock as she flung the door closed again. The man opened it enough to make himself heard and seen. He was holding up a dim lantern and peering into her room. He was not very tall, stocky and dusty. His face was almost obscured by a bushy beard and when he spoke, his voice was gruff and loud.
     ‘Get out 'ere, whoever's in there. Into the bar…quick, an' you'll not be hurt. Don't do anythin' stupid or you'll be sorry, yer hear.’
     When Rebecca was unable to answer because her throat had closed over, the voice came again. "You, in there, do you 'ear me? Out 'ere, now, or I'll be in to get yer.’
     ‘Comin’,’ Rebecca squeaked. She cleared her throat and answered again, trying to sound strong and calm. ‘I'm coming.’
     When Rebecca descended the stairs, she saw a dozen people huddled in one corner of the bar, her father among them. She hurried to his side and moved in close. His arm went around her protectively, although she had no confidence he could defend her against the four men she could see with rifles, who were still rounding up stragglers. 
     ‘Right, folks, listen up.’ The voice of one of the rifled men rang out. ‘We're not here to frighten you, nor to rob you. We need you to remain calm, and to stay here a day or so for we're in need of a rest. You might even enjoy yourselves. You'll be free to eat and drink what you want, at our expense, of course. There'll be others joining us for we have a man at each entrance to town to invite in the passers by. I'm afraid we can have no one letting on that we're here, so don't be making us have to stop you, eh? Now, off you go back to your beds. We'll see you all in the morning.’
     The stunned guests drifted slowly back upstairs, looking to each other for assurances that no one was about to do anything foolish. As Michael and Rebecca approached the top of the stairs, Rebecca whispered fearfully.
     ‘Who are they, Pa? What will they do with us?’
     ‘Don't worry, girl. That's Ben Hall an' his gang. He's a man of 'is word, so I've 'eard.  You get some sleep an' we'll see what 'appens in the mornin'.
     ‘You won't do anythin'…you know… silly?’ Rebecca could see her father's mind scheming, for this was the very gang he had hoped to get a reward for. That frightened her more than the bushrangers themselves.
     ‘Sure, an' 'ave I ever done anythin' silly, girl?’ Michael hissed. ‘Now get to yer bed.’
     Rebecca rolled her eyes at her father and pushed open the door to her room. She lay awake for a long time, wondering what would become of them all, before she eventually drifted to sleep. The following morning there was a hush over the dining area as guests quietly ate their breakfast, nervously reaching for bowls of porridge and sipping mugs of tea. The rain had started to fall in the early hours of the morning and was now the only sound audible as it beat down onto the iron roof. 
     Before mid morning, two more drays had pulled up outside, escorted by one of the bushrangers. Two families were ushered into the hotel and given the same instructions as the group the night before. They huddled together, removing hats and shaking rain from their coats while stealing glances around the hotel parlour. Two children were whimpering as their family were shown to a room and before they could get halfway up the stairs one of the bushrangers pushed himself away from the bar where he had been seated and jumped to his feet. Everyone gasped, expecting him to take offence at the noise the children were making. His words were quite unexpected.
     ‘Come now, folks. This is not a funeral,’ he exclaimed loudly with an American accent. ‘You,’ he pointed at the man behind the bar. ‘Break out those cigars behind you.  One for everyone who cares to smoke. Let's brighten up this party. Tell the kitchen maid to prepare sweet meats for lunch. I don't want to be here with a bunch of mourners.’     
     John Gilbert was a fine looking young man, his body honed to exceptional fitness.  His face had a chiselled handsomeness about it. In spite of the strangeness of the situation, Rebecca could see from the faces around her that some of the guests found him believable and likeable. She relaxed a little.
     A few men moved from their seats to accept a cigar and there was a growing buzz of chatter. The names of the bushrangers began to be whispered around the tables as one or another of the guests recognised them. Before lunch Ben Hall returned, having ridden out earlier. He had the local constable in tow. 
     ‘The constable's joining us, folks. We don't want him tempted to send out a warning about us, do we?’ He smiled amiably, casting his eyes around the room. He seemed pleased with the more relaxed atmosphere. ‘Enjoy yourself, constable,’ he continued, ushering the policeman towards the table of sweet meats.
     On the second day, more drays began to line up behind the others, taken hostage as they entered town. The tone of the gathering was much lighter by then and the new guests were as much bemused as fearful and soon joined into the party atmosphere.        
     Rebecca watched it all unfold, her fear gradually subsiding. She could see that the bushrangers had no intent to hurt anyone. She overheard them laughing together about the fiasco of their visit to Bathurst earlier in the week. Women had been screaming and police running everywhere and them not having done a thing wrong. It seemed that they would have to lie low until people forgot about them or they would not be able to walk down a street in any town, even when they wanted to purchase something legally. They were not about hurting poor and defenceless people, after all, and they wished folk would be more understanding. Robbers like Frank Gardiner and the infamous Mad Dan Morgan, were giving them a bad name, they joked. Hopefully, these folk would spread a different impression of them when they left Canowindra. 
     However, by the end of the second day, Rebecca could see that some of the guests were getting restless and anxious to get on with their own plans. Some huddled in corners, holding their children close, frustrated that they could not continue on their journey. She heard some muttering that they had just come into town for supplies and were worried family members might come looking for them and get caught up in all this.
     The bushrangers kept trying to be merry, indulging themselves in food and liquor as if they didn't often have time for such enjoyment. But they were also skittish and unpredictable when new people arrived; their hands going instinctively to their guns until they were confident of cooperation.
     Rebecca watched her father, happy to indulge in eating and drinking and sharing stories but then withdrawing into broody darkness at the loss of his freedom, just as he did at home. She hoped he wouldn't do anything crazy. 
     The rain was becoming unsettling. It continued to lash the roof and windows, blowing sideways on gusts of wild wind and finding its way through cracks in the walls, causing the air to be sultry and overlaid with the smells of men and women in various states of cleanliness and social grace. At least it was a good subject for discussion amongst those getting restless; keeping their minds and tongues occupied. The rain had been a welcome sight after the many months of drought which had caused some families to give up and move on; a drought which had caused a sense of despair and desperation in those whose lives depended on being able to grow enough food and raise enough livestock to make a meagre living.
     Now the rain was becoming a problem in itself as it flooded houses not sufficiently water proofed and rushed down streets and allies, pushing rubbish into corners and blocking pathways. Worst of all, it would bring the rivers up and that would mean fences and barns collapsing and cattle drowning; more problems than they cared to think about. 
     On the third day, the rain was still pelting down. There were now forty people crammed into the small hotel, some of them enjoying themselves with the plentiful food and drink. But when two of the guests approached Ben Hall and explained that this kind of rain would soon prevent the bushrangers from crossing the river for days, he decided to end the party. As the guests packed up and moved out of the hotel, cautious lest he change his mind, Hall instructed John Vane and Michael Burke to ready the horses so they could be on their way. 
     Rebecca sat in the corner with her father, wondering what he might do now. She had no intention of letting him take her home and realised she would have to think quickly. 
     ‘So I guess you'll be on your way, too, Pa?’ she ventured. 
     His face was impassive but she had no doubt he was reworking his original plan to find a means of getting a reward for the capture of these men. She felt sorry for them herself, having decided that they were for the most part harmless and those they robbed probably had plenty to share anyway. She had even found herself envying their adventurous life. Surely, they must want the company of a woman sometimes and as she had heard them say, they could hardly stop anywhere for long or do anything normal without people getting hysterical at the sight of them. 
     Her father had spent time laughing and joking with them, as if trying to become one of them, although he was old enough to have fathered them all. Rebecca suspected that he wanted them to feel comfortable with him so they would not be suspicious later if he informed on them. 
     ‘Quiet, girl, I'm thinkin'.’ He interrupted her musings. ‘You go an' pack yer things,’ he said, confirming her earlier assumptions.
     She left him sitting there and went to have a word with Mrs Robinson, the owner's wife. After a few minutes she returned to her father, her plan set.
     ‘I'll stay on here, Pa. Mrs Robinson says that they'll be busy as anything for the next few weeks, what with everyone wanting to come in an' hear all about what's gone on, so I've asked her if I can do some work for her and she's agreed. You can get me when you're ready to go home, eh?’
     Quickly surmising that Rebecca's idea would solve a problem for him, Michael agreed and prepared to leave. Rebecca didn't ask where he was going. She knew he was unlikely to tell her the truth and more than likely, he wasn't sure himself. She had no confidence that her father had any workable plan to capture the bushrangers or to give the authorities information that would lead to their capture. She figured she had at least a week or two to decide what she would do before he came back looking for her.

To be continued...

Carol Preston