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

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