‘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
, 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.’ Bathurst
‘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
coming through the back door. ‘Did Tom come, Mrs Kearns?’ she said hopefully. Elizabeth
‘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.’
took the book and held it to her heart. Elizabeth
Kathryn shook her head and smiled. As
disappeared into the bedroom her mother's voice followed her. ‘Don't start reading that now, dear. You've chickens to feed, remember.’ Elizabeth
had deposited the book in some private place and left the house again, her mother was still smiling. Elizabeth
‘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
…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.’ Sydney
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 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. Church of St Francis
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...