Sunday, 16 September 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen
 We make of forgiveness a law of 
reciprocity. And this never works.
For then both of us say to ourselves
‘The other fellow has to make the first move.’ 
Then I watch like a hawk to see whether 
the other person will flash a signal to me…
which shows that he is sorry. I am always
on the point of forgiving…but I never forgive.
I am far too just. Helmut  Thielicke

Wiseman's Creek, September, 1860

Norah was awakened by a rustling outside the hut.  She knew it was the early hours of the morning, for she had not long been up to Mickey and seen that the moon was still high in the sky. It was a clear night and she had been glad to feel the warmer air of Spring after the wild Winter, when winds and downpours of rain had undermined her vegetable garden and caused a minor flood around the pigsty that had eventually banked up and washed away the side of the pen. Tom had quickly rebuilt it and the pigs had not even tried to stray for they were too well fed with food scraps, turnip and carrot tops and the outside cabbage leaves which Norah sacrificed to keep them happy. 
     It had been a hard Winter because both Joseph and Mickey, now three and a half and almost two, had contracted the flu and at one point she thought she would lose them both. If Hamlet hadn't ridden to Kelso and brought back the doctor…well, she didn't like to think about it.
     It was always at night when the most frightening thoughts came; fears for her children; of sickness, an accident or a snake bite which might leave her with a dying child or worse and no one to hear her cries for help. In the daylight, she was confident that she could manage whatever crisis came and if not, that help was not so far away.  But at night, as it was now, it was too easy to imagine crises that she might not be able to deal with. She squeezed her eyes shut and focussed on her prayers. Prayers that God would look after them. Prayers that Michael would return soon for he had been gone for over six months now.
     He had gone just as her hopes had risen that he would not leave her again. Young Mickey was the apple of his eye, and he had seemed to be enjoying watching him grow. He had worked more in the garden, clearing some scrub to enlarge the chook pen and putting in a tank to collect water so they wouldn't have so many trips to the creek with buckets. But then at the end of March, he told her he was going. He said there were bushrangers out west of Bathurst and there was big rewards to be had. She had heard it all before, but her pleading did not stop him. He packed up his dray and left within a day of talking about it.
     Rebecca had stormed about the hut, furious because he had not taken her with him. He had laughed at the idea which had made her more angry and she had taken it out on Tom for the next week, calling him names and saying she should have been the boy and he the girl. Which, of course, was ludicrous, for Tom already worked harder than most men and Rebecca hardly lifted a finger until she was stood on her ear. 
     The rustling noise came again, this time louder, disturbing her thoughts. Norah felt her heart begin to beat strongly. She sensed danger but told herself this was more than likely a possum or a roo rat, scavenging around the yard. It was close to the back door now and she sat up in her bed, grabbing at the light cover and pulling it around her shoulders. She was talking herself into getting up and finding out what the noise was when the back door flew open and slammed against the wall.
     ‘Michael Kearns!’ a rough voice shouted. ‘Michael Kearns, I know yer here. Get yerself up and face me, yer braggart. I've a score to settle, an' I mean to 'ave it out.’
     Norah jumped to her feet, grabbed her coat from the corner and headed for the door.  She could hear the children stirring as she reached the door and came face to face with a large man who towered over her. He smelt of whisky and sweat and even in the darkness she could see that he was carrying a rifle which he swung around and aimed at her chest as she came up short in front of him.
     ‘It's Michael I'm after, missus,’ he growled. ‘Just send 'im out and you'll not be hurt.’
     ‘He's not here,’ Norah stuttered. ‘He's not been here for months. I don't know where he is…please.’ She looked at the barrel of the rifle, terrified. She was conscious of her children beginning to whisper and whimper behind her. 
     Suddenly, she felt herself being shoved sideways as the man roughly pushed past her and moved inside. He would not be able to see who was in the room, she knew, and if he were to believe that one of them was Michael… The thought made her pull him back by his vest and, although she hardly made any impression on his bulk, it caused him to swing around and face her.
     ‘Who's in there, then?’ He could not have mistaken the whimpers for Michael.
     ‘My children,’ she said. ‘Five of them. Please, you're frightening them.’
     Tom was already making his way to the door, shepherding Joseph and carrying Mickey. Norah could hear Mary crying and Rebecca yawning; always the last to wake. 
     ‘What's happening?’ she whined. ‘It's still dark…what's going on?’
     ‘Out here, the lot of yer.’ The gruff voice came again as Tom laid Mickey on the floor in front of the fire and hurried back to usher Mary out of the bedroom. 
     Rebecca stumbled from her bed and joined the others, staring wide-eyed at the man with the gun.
     By the light of the still burning fire, Norah could see that his beard was matted and had leaves caught in it. His clothes were ragged and dirty. He looked similar but much worse than Michael often looked when he returned from the bush. And this man's face was much meaner. There was slobber around his mouth and when he spoke she could see that his teeth were yellowish stumps. She had never felt so frightened.
     ‘Please, Mister.’ Norah tried to keep her voice calm. ‘Michael is not here. I don't know why you want him but it has nothing to do with my children and me. I don't know anything about his…work.’
     The man threw back his head and laughed. ‘His work? That's a joke. He wouldn't know the meanin' of the word. How long since you seen 'im?’
     ‘Six months. He left in March. He always goes when the days are getting shorter.’    
     ‘Yeah, because there's more dark for 'im to skulk around in, is why. Mongrel stole somethin' o' mine and I don't intend to let 'im get away with it. He's done it too often, to too many people. No honour among thieves for 'im. It's all for 'im, every time. Well, no more. Are you sure 'e didn't come 'ere and stash somethin' before 'e took off again?’ The man waved his rifle around menacingly, causing the children to shrink back against the wall.
     Norah moved herself between them and the man, holding out her arms to shield them.
     ‘Don't worry, missus. I don't shoot children.’ He lowered his rifle and moved to the stove, looking into the large pot that sat on top. ‘Is there anythin' in there to eat? I'm right hungry an' seein' as I'm not goin' to get anythin' else, I might as well 'ave a feed.’ He slumped onto the stool beside the table and laid his rifle down. ‘Get 'em back to bed, eh, an' you get me a feed an' then I'll leave you be.’
     Norah motioned to the older children to move back into the bedroom. As she picked up Mickey she was aware that her hands were trembling. Joseph and Mary clung to her side as she hurried back into the bedroom.

Afterwards, Norah wasn't sure if she had dreamed the whole thing. She shuddered, as she thought about the sight and smell of the man, the low growl of his voice and the rifle he had brandished about. She lay in the dark after he had gone, listening to every sound, praying that angels would guard her door. Some time in the early hours of the morning, she drifted back to sleep and woke up with a start with the sun streaming through the small window. When she looked about her and saw that all the children had gone from their beds, she jumped to her feet and rushed into the next room, shouting their names.    
     They were all there, sitting quietly at the table. Mickey and Joseph sat either side of Rebecca, chewing on bread and jam. Tom and Mary sat on the other side, scraping the last of some porridge from their plates.
     ‘How long have you all been up?’
     ‘A little while, Ma,’ Tom answered. ‘We didn't want to wake you so we thought we'd get breakfast. There's hot tea made.’
      ‘Thank you, Tom. I didn't get back to sleep for a while. I don't suppose you did either.’
     ‘I couldn't sleep at all. I was sure he was going to come back an' kill us all.’ Rebecca spoke slowly, her face pale.
     ‘What do you think he'll do to Pa when he finds him, Ma?’ Tom asked quietly.
      ‘I don't know, luv, sure I don't, God help him. I don't know how he’ll find him, though he obviously found out where we live so I suppose he'll come for him eventually.’
     ‘I've seen him before,’ Rebecca said. ‘We've got to warn Pa.
     ‘We can't warn your father, Rebecca. I don't have any idea where he is. And where on earth would you have seen that man before?’ Norah hugged a mug of hot tea to her chest.
     ‘I saw him outside one of the dances…with the Foley boys. He was talkin' to the old one, John. It was dark but I swear it was that man.’
     ‘What were you doing in the dark near the Foley boys? I've told you –’
     ‘Yeah, yeah, Ma, but I weren't doin' anything wrong. I was with Mary Anne Foley.  We were just talkin', that's all, and her brothers were at the corner of the shed. There was some shoutin'…that one I reckon…and then we moved inside.’
     ‘Rebecca, you really must be careful. I'm afraid some of those boys are headed for trouble. Please just stay out of their way. When your father comes back, we can warn him but until then we can only pray for him.’ Norah poured herself another cup of tea and wrapped her hands around it. ‘Goodness knows how many men are out there after your Pa. That one's not the first one he's stolen from and likely not the last. I don't know what we can do about him, sure I don't. But I do intend to get better at using that gun of ours and keep it handy with me at night.’
     ‘Ma, you wouldn't shoot anyone, would you?’
     ‘If I had to, I would, Rebecca. If I had to protect you children, I would.’ Norah slapped one hand on the table.
     ‘Ma, you know I'm a good shot,’ Tom said. ‘I'll take care of you. I'll keep the gun near me at night.’ He moved behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. 
     ‘Tis not your responsibility, Tom,’ she said, patting his hand.  
     ‘Ma, I'm thirteen. I'm bigger than you now, in case you hadn't noticed. The biggest should be in charge, I say, so you have to let me use the gun if we need to. You know I'm a good shot.’
     ‘You are, son, to be sure, and you are taller than me, but it's still not your responsibility. So you'll be doing as I say for now and if I need you to shoot someone for me, I'll let you know.’ She tousled his hair as he sat beside her, then chuckled softly, trying to lighten the heaviness of the mood in the little hut. 

‘An' then he made us go back into the bedroom an' he ate all our stew.'
     Tom shook his head as he watched Rebecca hanging over the Pollard children dramatically and recounting their night of terrorl.
     'We could hear 'im slurpin'. He was a big one…about six foot,’ she said, raising her arm well above her head. 
    ‘Probably not quite that big, but a lot bigger than Ma.’ Tom corrected his sister. ‘I wouldn't like to be Pa when he finds him either.’
     ‘Probably ravaged yer Ma when he finished eatin' too,’ Johnny speculated, his imagination obviously in full flight as he listened to Rebecca's account of their traumatic night.
     ‘What would you know about ravaging?’ James cuffed his brother's ear.
     ‘He didn't,’ defended Tom. ‘I'd have shot him if he'd touched her. I was listening and I'd have run out and shot him for sure.’
     ‘What's ravaging?’ nine-year-old Elizabeth piped in.
     ‘Never you mind…and you just watch your tongue, Johnny.’ Mary Ann chided her brother. ‘I think it's just horrible. I'd have been terrified…and I think you're very brave, Tom.’ She looked at him admiringly. As did Elizabeth, who sat on the other side of him in the circle they had formed on the grass behind the shed. 
     They had finished their lesson for the day. It had been a short one and they could all see that Norah was not herself. They had hurried outside to hear the story, leaving their mothers inside with the smaller children.
     ‘You shouldn't have been listening to this story, Elizabeth,’ Mary Ann continued.  ‘You should have stayed inside with the others. You'll have nightmares, you will.’
     ‘I will not.’ Elizabeth leaned across Tom's knee and pulled a face at her sister.
     ‘Well, at least I'm old enough to know what ravaging is.’ Mary Ann's voice rose a little. 
     Suddenly, Hamlet's voice broke into their hushed exchanges. ‘What's this talk of ravaging, Mary Ann? That's hardly a term I'd expect you to be using…or even understanding. And what's this huddle about anyway? I thought you were all inside with your reading class. If you're done, you boys can come and help me with the new calves.  A couple of them need feeding by hand.’
     Mary Ann breathed a sigh of relief. She was clearly glad her father had moved on to talking about calves, so she didn't have to explain what she had been talking about.
     However, Elizabeth was not so reticent. ‘A man broke into Tom's house and ravaged his mother so we had a short class.’
     ‘What did you say, Elizabeth? Tom, what's happened?’ Hamlet dropped the shovel he had been carrying and moved around the circle as Tom rose.
     ‘No, Mr Pollard,’ Tom explained. ‘He didn't do anything to Ma, except frighten her half to death, and all of us. He was after Pa, ’cause Pa had something of his, I think. He didn't stay long, just had a feed and then he left.’
     ‘Dear God, when was this?’
     ‘Two nights ago. Ma's talking with Mrs Pollard about it now we think. We came out here so they could, you know, have some time. I think Ma's still pretty upset.’
     ‘I'm not surprised.’ Hamlet puffed and turned and strode toward the house.
     Tom could hear him mumbling to himself about how it was a pity someone didn't catch up with Michael Kearns and give him what he deserved. Tom looked around at the circle of faces; all silent and solemn.
     ‘I think Pa's real mad,’ James eventually said quietly. ‘He doesn't like your Pa much.’  Tom nodded and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I guess he figures your Pa should be home more, lookin' after you.’
     ‘We'd all like Pa home more.’ Rebecca sighed deeply. ‘But Pa is not one for farmin'.  He prefers to…ah...’ She seemed lost for words to explain her father's behaviour.
     ‘He prefers to be out finding someone to rob…is what she means, James. That's what he prefers to do, and one day someone will shoot him, for sure…if I don't do it myself.’ With that Tom jumped to his feet and headed for the house.

There was a collective gasp around the circle and all eyes went to Rebecca.
     ‘He's not that bad,’ she said defensively. ‘At least he has exciting stories to tell. His life's not boring…like living here is. Tom's just a Mama's boy. Pa always says so. He wouldn't shoot Pa, or anyone. He's too soft…he's – ’
     ‘No!’ Mary Ann and Elizabeth chorused.
     ‘Tom's kind, but he's not soft.’ Mary Ann went on after nudging her sister to be quiet.  ‘Tom would look after his mother and so he should, for he's really the man of the house, isn't he?’
     ‘Now, girls, let's not get into a fight amongst ourselves,’ James said. ‘There's enough strife already. Come on, Rebecca. Don't be mad at Tom. This is not his fault.’
     ‘Oh, you boys…always stickin' together,’ she sneered. ‘No one's ever on my side…well, I don't care. You can all rot in this horrible place. I'll be gettin' out soon as I can.’ She shrugged off James' attempt to reach out to her and flounced towards the house.

It was well into the summer before Michael returned and although he listened in silence to his daughter's recollections of the night they were visited by a rogue, he merely shrugged his shoulders at the end, claiming that he had no notion of who the man might be, and concluded that he had made some kind of mistake, for there was no reason for anyone to be after him.
     ‘Why, I've been out after the likes of 'im, more's the truth. Occasionally, I've 'ad to 'elp meself to a feed or a bit o' this an' that to get by,’ he admitted, ‘but tis like Ben Hall 'iself says…tis a reasonable thing for a man to take from the rich an' give to the poor for the rich 'ave taken more than their share, an' they'd not give a baker's toss for the likes of us, now would they?’
     ‘And who are the poor you are giving to, Michael, tell me that?  For you've brought precious little into this house. Not that I want the takings of others, mind.’ Norah could no longer view Michael's actions with anything but contempt.
     ‘You've not yet seen what's in the cart, 'ave yer? I've brought yer bags of flour an' tea an' sugar, sure I 'ave, loads of it. An' a few pretty things for you an' the girls as well. I can't make money 'ere, can I? A man's got to get work where 'e can.’
     ‘And if it were honest work, I'd be more than grateful but how do I know some poor woman isn't going without and unable to feed her children because you've stolen their food?’
     ‘Yer a 'ard woman to please, so you are. I bought this fair and square with the money I got for policin', so I did. We been out west, after members of the Hall gang. Nearly got some of 'em, too, for we got right to their 'ideout before they slipped through our fingers.  But we'll get 'em, sure enough. An' you should be thankful I'm 'ere at all for didn't I come close to losin' me life in the fight this time?’
     Michael paused until it seemed clear he had the children’s attention and then went on. ‘It were John Dunn we were after, one of the nastiest of the gang. A couple of trackers an' Constable Nelson, an' me, yer see. We'd 'eard that Dunn got separated from the rest of the gang an' was hidin' out in the bush around Sunny Corner. We 'ad to pass through slip rails on some private property, an' we'd all gone through an' Nelson was just about to get back on 'is horse after putting up the rails when Dunn comes runnin' out of the bush an' fired his shot-gun right into Nelson's chest. Took off again before any of us could turn about an' catch 'im. Poor sod was stone dead…never 'ad a chance. If it'd been me that was puttin' up the rails I'd be the one lyin' there on the ground.’
     Michael took a breath, puffing out his chest. Rebecca sat across from him, rapt. Tom fidgeted beside her, as if unsure if he could believe a word his father said.
     Norah watched young Mary, her eyes wide as she listened to her father. She's only six, she thought. How can she know what to believe? And if she thinks of her father as some kind of hero, how disappointed is she going to be when she finds out what he's really like? 
     ‘You don't seem to have much success with catching these rogues, Michael.’ It was all Norah could think to say. 
     ‘Ah, tis just a matter of time. Yer 'ave to keep at 'em, ’til they make a mistake…an' then, bang, you've got 'em. As a matter of fact, it was just a week later that we caught one called Slippery…for obvious reasons. We was out again, Constable Preston an' two trackers went in one direction an' me and Constable Wright in another. An' after about three hours, we 'ears this shot, an' when we got there, Slippery 'ad one of the trackers by the throat, but Preston shot 'im in the leg. Screamed in pain 'e did. We escorted 'im to Capertree railway station, an' they took 'im to Wallerawang lockup. They got a doctor to get the bullet out an' next day he was sent to Bathurst to the goal, sentenced to twelve months.  So, all in a day's work, eh?’
     ‘You've been gone eight months, Michael,’ Norah reminded him. ‘Tis a long time for a few day's work.’
     ‘I've 'ad other work, girl, so I 'ave, an' I've 'ad to rest up as well. Sometimes we're out for days at a time without sleep. Actually, I'm pretty tuckered out now, just thinkin' about it all. I'll crawl into bed for a bit, eh? Perhaps when yer get the younguns settled, you could join me, luv. I've missed yer, so I 'ave.’
     He ran his fingers through Norah's hair as he moved past her. She shuddered at his touch and her heart sank. Her husband no longer aroused more than disgust in her.

To be continued....

Carol Preston

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