Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Twenty-Six


We are all full of weaknesses and errors;
We should all mutually pardon each other our follies.

Wiseman's Creek, August, 1873

Tom came home from work one afternoon to find his mother in the parlour, folding clothes. He could tell right away that she was agitated.
     ‘What's up, Ma? Is Lizzie all right? The children?’
     ‘They're all fine.’ Norah began laying clothes in a canvas bag.
     ‘What are you doing, Ma? Something is up. I can tell.’
     ‘Oh, Tom, I hardly dare say it in case I'm dreaming.’ She dropped the blouse she was folding and took his hands. ‘Joseph's been.’ Her eyes misted up.
     ‘And he told me something.’ She put both hands over her mouth as if to stop herself crying.
      Tom's mind went immediately to the key. ‘What did he tell you?’ He wasn't sure what to make of his mother's emotional state.
     ‘He told me where Rebecca is.’ She dropped into a chair as she said it. ‘I've been trying to keep calm, Tom, but I'm beside myself. He said that Michael's been raving a lot lately. And he said something about Rebecca being out at Forbes…and that she's got a child.’
     ‘Is he sure? With all the raving Pa seems to do, how can you be sure?’
     ‘I can't, but I'm going to find out.’
     Elizabeth came into the room. ‘Isn't it wonderful, Tom? Your mother's news?’
     ‘I guess,’ Tom answered. He felt sceptical. ‘But how will you – ’
     ‘I'm going out on the coach…on Wednesday. Elizabeth told me that one of the neighbours goes out that way to see relatives and she said it's a good service. It runs on Wednesday.’
     ‘Your mother will be fine, Tom,’ Elizabeth said excitedly. ‘Sally said that the coach stops half way and passengers can stay overnight if they like. It'll be safe as can be.’ 
    ‘I don't like you going out there alone, Ma.’ Tom was still trying to take in the news.
     ‘I did say I'd take William, but Elizabeth insists he'd be no trouble here. In fact he's a great help to her with the little ones, she said.’
     ‘I agree with that, Ma. I’m not suggesting you drag William all over Forbes. But I'd rather you had an adult with you. What about Mary?’
     ‘She can't just take time off from her work like that. I don't know how long I'll be.  Rebecca might need me to stay a while.’
     ‘You don’t even know what you’ll find, Ma.’ Tom was unsure.
     ‘I'll be fine, Tom. Be happy for me. I've waited a long time to find my daughter.’
      ‘I just don't want you to be hurt any more.’
     ‘I have to know how Rebecca is, Tom. You must see that. You have daughters of your own now. Could you imagine not seeing them for ten years…not knowing...’?
     ‘Yes, I do understand, Ma.’
     ‘Good, then I'll get on with this packing.’
     ‘You have all day tomorrow for that.’ He laughed lightly, relaxing a little and trying to be happy for his mother. ‘So, how will you go about finding her? From what I've read Forbes is no small town. It's had a large population since the gold rush back in the early sixties. A lot of bushrangers made their home there…terrorised the place, I've read.’
     ‘They're all dead now, Tom. I've heard you say as much before. I'm sure it's quite civilised now.’
     ‘Maybe. Since the gold rush petered out there’s sheep and cattle farms out that way. It's been in the newspapers I get William to read. I like them to know about their country,’ he added, noticing the bemusement on his mother’s face. ‘Apparently, there are some beautiful public buildings too, and churches. The post office is supposed to be worth a visit.’
     ‘Then that's where I'll start looking for Rebecca. A post office should have a reasonable idea of where people live, don’t you think?’
     ‘Perhaps if they get mail, but who would be sending Rebecca letters?’
     ‘Probably no one,’ she sighed. ‘I'd certainly have written to her if I'd known she was there. And I will in future, if I can find her and if she won't come back to us.’
     ‘After ten years…perhaps she considers Forbes her home.’
     ‘Perhaps. I just want to know she's well and happy.’ There was a finality to Norah's voice that let Tom know the subject was closed for now.
     ‘And did Joseph say anything else?’ he asked tentatively after a few moments.
     ‘Yes, I almost forgot.’ His mother turned to him. ‘He said he had a message for you.  Something about a train. I didn't really understand it but hopefully he's thinking seriously about working on the railway. You will go and see him, won't you?’
     ‘I certainly will, Ma.’ Tom's mind turned to other things. 

Early Wednesday morning, Elizabeth dropped Norah at the Royal Hotel, which was the booking office and starting place for the Cob & Co Coach service. There were six other passengers going west that day. Their bags were tied onto the tray behind the driver and when they climbed into the coach, Norah found that the seating was very tight. She was crushed between a rather large woman and a young man who twitched constantly all the way to the first changing station at Blayney Inn.
     Here they all got out while the horses were changed. It was the coach company's policy to have fresh horses regularly so that they could reach their destinations faster. It also gave the passengers a chance to stretch their legs and to have a drink. Norah was relieved when the twitching man did not return to the coach and for the rest of the trip to Canowindra she chatted with the large lady, whose name was Ruby. There was a family with three small children across from them and in her quieter moments Norah wondered what Rebecca's child might look like…or children, she thought, for in ten years she might well have become a grandmother numerous times. 
     At Canowindra, Norah conceded that she had had enough for one day and stayed overnight at Robinson's hotel. She remembered that this was the hotel where Michael and Rebecca had been held up by Ben Hall's gang. The hotel had changed hands since then, so there seemed no point in asking the new owners what they knew of that terrible three days. It made Norah shudder just to think about it, as she lay restlessly in her bed that night. She was glad the bushrangers were now dead, for she knew that they had gone on to Forbes that year and she prayed that Rebecca had had no further encounters with them. 
     The coach pulled up near the Albion Hotel in Forbes late the next evening and it was all Norah could do to drop into the narrow bed in the hotel room, where she slept soundly through the night. She woke early and after a cup of tea and a bowl of porridge in the dining room, she headed down the main street looking for the post office.
     Norah was distracted by people bustling this way and that along the street. She searched the faces of the women, most of whom wore broad hats with large brims.  Rebecca would be nearly thirty now but surely her beautiful face and dark curls would still cause her to stand out. Would she be out shopping, perhaps with a child or two skipping around her skirts? Norah imagined them meeting and her heart twisted with excitement.   
     The Post Office quickly loomed in front of her, its original name of the Black Ridge Post Office now replaced with Post Office of Forbes. The once thriving digging population of around thirty thousand people had dwindled to less than a thousand in the mid-sixties and was just beginning to build up again. The aging man in the post office was full of the changes that he had seen in Forbes but, no, he didn't know of a young woman called Rebecca who had at least one child. He knew most people who picked up their mail regularly, for he loved to keep up with all the news. Most of the townsfolk were farmers now. They came in on a Friday to buy supplies and collect their mail. The men liked to have their drink, of course. He would ask around, he said, after hearing Norah's story. If she came back in the next day, he would see what he could find out.  
     Norah left, trying not to be discouraged. How on earth was she to find her daughter without any idea of what she might even be calling herself? She wandered up and down the street, searching faces again, asking questions of numerous women she thought might be Rebecca's age. Perhaps they had seen her in the general store. But there was nothing in their responses to give her any hope. 
     The small Catholic Church off the main street caught her attention and she quickly found the priest who sympathised but said he had no young woman in his parish who fitted Rebecca's description. Not that it meant she wasn't around town somewhere, he admitted, for many of the town's residents never went anywhere near the church, preferring to spend their Sundays by the river having picnics. He could hardly blame them, for they had little enough time with their families and it was rather beautiful on the grassy banks of the river. He only prayed that they would remember that it was the good Lord who gave them the beauty around them and that they would know where to come when they were in trouble. At least, he could bury their dead. He did get to baptise their wee ones too, of course, for most of them still considered it too risky not to have God's blessing on their children. But he couldn't recall having baptised any little ones for a woman called Rebecca. It was going to be very difficult to find a woman whose married name was unknown, he insisted. 
     Norah did not want to risk his disapproval by suggesting that Rebecca might not even be married. She chided herself for thinking this about her daughter but she had a feeling that Rebecca may well have no regard for the institution of marriage. The priest sat in the small chapel and prayed with Norah that she might find her daughter and be reconciled for there was no doubt that God would want that for both of them. 
     The man in the post office was excited to see Norah the following day. He rubbed his hands together and leaned over the counter, ready to share the news that he had gathered.
     ‘You're in luck, me dear, for I've had old Mrs Ryan in here yesterday afternoon and if anyone knows what's going on amongst the women in these parts it's Mrs Ryan.’
     Norah's heart leapt as she nodded for him to go on.
     ‘Well, there's a couple of possibilities as regards to your daughter. About opposite ends of the scale though. There is a young woman who's married to a well-to-do farmer a little west of here. The women only know her as Mrs Cartwright. Apparently a real beauty, dark hair like you said, been here about ten years and she's had three little ones in that time. Only thing is it seems there's not much sign of an Irish accent…speaks real proper, Mrs Ryan says. Catholic though, for they're apparently regular church goers.’
     Norah's rising hopes faded. ‘That doesn't sound like Rebecca I'm afraid, although I'd love to think so. I saw the priest yesterday and he said no one in his parish fitted Rebecca's description.’
     ‘Ah, well.’ He lowered his voice. ‘There is another possibility…rather less desirable but let me tell you about it anyway.’ He licked his lips, clearly enjoying the revealing of important information, perhaps more appealing for its less desirable nature. ‘Apparently there's a few small huts about five miles east of here, along the Lachlan River. Little place called Wowingong…probably a native name that. They've kept some of them…keeps the peace, you know.’ He stopped speaking and seemed to be gathering his thoughts.
     ‘Right, then…apparently there's these little huts where there's a few families living.  Well, not really families, like. It was around there that some of those bushrangers lived a few years back and it seems they had women out there. Didn't marry them or anything, just…well there's children, it appears. Anyway, according to Mrs Ryan one of these women sort of fits the description of your daughter. Not that Mrs Ryan has ever seen the women, for she wouldn't set foot out there. Most of the women around here are pretty against that sort of thing. She said there was talk of a right pretty young thing getting caught up with these characters and having babies…dark hair, Irish. But it might not be her at all, and most of the bushrangers who were around here are long gone, dead, mostly, so...’ He stopped as Norah’s face dropped.
     She could feel the colour draining out of her face.
     ‘I'm sorry, ma'am. It's probably not your daughter at all. For you seem such a decent lady. It's unlikely your daughter could have gotten herself mixed up with – ’
     ‘How do I get out there?’ Norah cut him off, pulling herself together.
     ‘Well, the coach to Wyalong would go out that way. It wouldn't be a regular stop but I'm sure the coach driver would take you. There'd be no inn there or anything, so you'd have to wait for the next one coming back…if you didn't find her, like.’
     ‘Or perhaps even if I did,’ Norah said quietly. ‘Thank you. You've been very helpful,’ she continued more audibly.
     The old man looked sad as Norah left the Post Office. She suspected that he was sorry about what he had told her, regardless of how much the story had teased his interest. She wasn't sure that she was glad to have heard it herself.
     The following morning, she was on the coach again, alighting after five miles, this time having had plenty of room to sit and ponder what she might find. None of her imaginings did justice to the small group of ram shackle huts that seemed to be toppling into the street where she stood as the coach moved on. The driver had waited a good five minutes, expecting her to change her mind and get back aboard, for surely there could be nothing in this tiny outpost that would induce a decent woman to stay.
     Norah looked up and down the short road that led into and out of the small cluster of buildings. She was in front of a tiny general store, the windows covered with dust, the doorway dark. There was no sound but the chortling of a magpie in a tree across the road. She noticed that it was hotter and dryer in this region than around Wiseman's Creek and she pulled her bonnet forward to keep the glare of the sun from her face. She could see the river winding along the back of the huts and it occurred to her that at least whoever lived here had access to water. Walking towards the door of the store, she could feel her heart thumping in her chest. 
     ‘Excuse me,’ she called into the dark recess.
     There seemed to be no one inside but after a moment, an elderly woman came from the back of the store. Her face was craggy with lines, her hair stringy around her neck.  An apron was draped across her large breast, partly covering an earth coloured shirt and a dark skirt. Norah couldn't help but think that neither she nor her clothes had been washed in months. So much for the access to water. Norah wondered if it would be better not to find Rebecca at all than to find her in this town. 
     ‘I'm looking for someone,’ she said, trying to be bright and realising that she wanted with all her heart to find Rebecca, no matter where. 
     ‘I doubt you'll find anyone you'd want 'ere,’ the woman drawled, looking Norah up and down.
     ‘Her name is Rebecca. She's my daughter. I've been told there's someone here who might fit her description…about thirty…dark hair, pretty.’
     ‘Irish, aren't you? Your daughter, you say? Well, who'd 'ave thought?’
     ‘Who'd have thought what?’ Norah queried.
     ‘I doubt she'll be expectin' you, is all. Last hut on right.’ She lifted her arm and pointed down the street, the action seeming to be all she had energy for. Then she turned and waddled through the open door at the back of the store. 
     Norah looked around as she left, her eyes having adjusted somewhat to the dim light.  There were a few limp vegetables on one side of the store. Judging by the smell, some of them already well past edible. There were numerous packets containing flour, sugar and tea on the other side, all of them covered with dust. Norah shuddered and hurried outside, her stomach turning over. 
     ‘Dear God in heaven, have mercy,’ she whispered to herself as she headed down the street.
     There was nothing that resembled a door over the opening in the front wall of the tiny hut. The boards were rotting, the tin roof leaning over the opening dangerously. A rusted length of tin stood by the small entrance, suggesting it might be used to block the hole at night. Flies buzzed around Norah's head furiously. She peered into the opening. The smell of something that might have been stew accosted her nostrils and they flared instinctively. 
     ‘Hello,’ she called tentatively, hoping she'd come to the wrong hut.
     There was no response for a moment or two. As Norah's eyes adjusted she could see that there was just one room, one side of it laid out with straw palliasses on the dirt floor. On the other side, there was a small stove, a pot balanced on the top. She could see steam rising from it and again recognised the smell which had a moment ago assaulted her. There was a piece of flat wood on two stumps beside the stove and a bench seat. Further along the wall, was a wooden safe with few plates on top of it. 
     ‘Ma's out back.’ The voice of a little girl, perhaps five or six stirred Norah from her perusal.
     As the child came closer Norah looked down into a replica of her daughter's face.  The same chiselled beauty, the same hostile glare. 
     ‘Good Lord.’ She gasped with the shock of it. She made herself smile. ‘What's your name, pet?’
     ‘Mabel. What's yours?’ the little girl retorted loudly.
     ‘My name is…Mrs Kearns.’ Norah wondered what the child knew of their background. 
     ‘That's Ma's name,’ she replied suspiciously, her brow creasing. 
     ‘Yes, your mother and I have the same name.’ Norah's heart sank with the realisation that Rebecca was almost certainly unmarried. ‘And your father?’ She held her breath as she asked.
     ‘Da's name is Higgins, but he's not 'ere.’
     Norah sighed. All her worst fears were coming to be.
     ‘Mabel, who are you talkin’ to?’ Rebecca's voice broke into the room as she appeared through the back door. 
     Norah noted that at least the back opening actually had a door. She drew in her breath in readiness to greet her daughter but couldn't prepare herself for the sight. Rebecca's hair was wild around her face, cut shorter than Norah was used to, and unruly, obviously unwashed; the once dark glossiness of it dull and lifeless. Her face was drawn and lined, her body hunched. In one cradled arm she held an infant, no more than a couple of months old. Her shirt was dishevelled, blousing out at the front as if she had just fed the baby and hadn't rebuttoned it. Her skirt was full and pulled tight at the waist, straining over a still swollen belly. Holding onto her skirt was a child about two years old, her nose running, her dark hair springing in every direction. She wore no shoes and her pinafore was covered in muddy smears. 
     ‘Ma?’ Rebecca stood transfixed to the spot, her eyes widening in shock as her adjusting sight confirmed that she was looking at her mother. 
     ‘Yes, Rebecca. Tis me.’
     Norah tried to smile but her face had succumbed to the growing emotion within her and she felt tears running down her cheeks. She wanted to leap forward and take her daughter in her arms but her feet would not move. Just as she thought she might gain control of her limbs the back door swung open again and two boys pushed each other through it. They were about seven and eight, Norah guessed. Their faces were broad and freckled, their hair fairer and straighter than the girls' but no less unruly. Their clothes were nothing more than tatters. Norah felt herself swaying and wondered if she was about to faint. She swallowed what felt like a ball of dust in her throat.
     ‘I'm sorry to come unannounced.’ The statement sounded ridiculous to her. ‘I came as soon as I knew where you were,’ she started again. ‘I've wondered for so long if you were…I had to come.’ Tears flow over her cheeks and her lip was trembling so much she couldn't go on.
     Rebecca hadn't moved since she had pulled up just inside the back door. She let the baby in her arm slide into the outstretched hands of the eldest boy and walked slowly towards her mother. Norah had no idea if she was going to hit her or hug her. She did neither, stopping a foot or so before her mother and looking her up and down as if she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
     ‘You're a bit late, Ma.’ She spat the words out. ‘What do you want? To gloat…say I told you so? Well, I don't want to hear it. You'd best go.’ She stuck her chin out defiantly. A look Norah remembered all too well. 
     ‘Please, Rebecca. I've come a long way.  Couldn't we talk?’
     ‘I'm done talkin'. Who's ever listened to me, eh? Tell Pa not to come back either.’   
     With this she turned and took the baby from her son and walked out the back door, leaving Norah standing with her jaw dropped, the tears still rolling down her face.
     ‘She does that,’ one of the boys said dully. ‘Probably come back in a while.’
     ‘What's your name?’ Norah asked wiping her eyes.
     ‘I'm Thomas and this is John.’ He pointed to his brother.
     ‘And the little ones?’
     ‘That was Wynnie. She's always hangin' on Ma. And the baby's Arthur. He's new.  And that's Mabel.’ He pointed to his other sister.
     ‘She knows that. I told her.’ Mabel stuck out her chin, unwittingly mimicking her mother.
     ‘All right, Miss smarty pants,’ Thomas retorted, shaking his head. ‘Always snipin', she is.’ He looked back to Norah. ‘Are you really Ma's…mother?’
     ‘Yes, I'm your grandmother, Thomas. I didn't know about you, or I'd have come sooner.’
     ‘So are you going to stay?’
     ‘I don't think your mother wants me to. She's not very happy to see me, is she now?’
     ‘No, but she really does want you to stay.’
     ‘Yeah,’ John joined in. ‘She does. Sometimes she cries and says she wishes her Ma was here. When she gets tired.’
     ‘I see. And what about your father?’
     ‘He's gone away.’ Mabel broke in defiantly. ‘He's prob'ly dead.’
     Norah gasped. ‘What makes you think that, Mabel?’
     ‘Ma thinks 'e is. Prob'ly shot.’
     ‘Ma thinks he was chased by men wantin' the reward.’Thomas explained patiently. 
     Norah could see something of her own Tom in this boy and momentarily she marvelled at the thought. 
     ‘But 'e was gone before an' he came back,’ John said. ‘So I reckon 'e'll come back again.’
     ‘Would you like that?’ Norah asked cautiously.
     John shrugged his shoulders uncertainly.
     ‘We don't want 'im back,’ Mabel answered for him. ‘Nels is better.’
     ‘He's Ma's friend,’ Thomas again elaborated, giving his sister a firm look.
     ‘He wants to marry 'er,’ Mabel chirped, emboldened by her brother's intended reprimand.
     ‘She can't though, can she? Cause Pa might come back.’ John added. 
     ‘Well, she can actually. Because Pa didn't marry her so she can marry whoever she likes.’ Thomas turned to Norah as if explaining a complicated situation to a child. ‘That's why our name is Higgins, not Kearns like Ma's. But she says Arthur's name is goin' to be Kearns because Pa hasn't been here since he was born and he might be dead anyway.’
     ‘That's a lot for you children to take in, isn't it?’ Norah thought they were probably able to take it in much better than her. And why it was all such a shock was beyond her for it wasn't so different to how she had lived herself? Dear God, she cried silently.  Why is this all happening over again? 
     ‘It's all right,’ Thomas said knowingly. ‘Ma will calm down soon. She always does.  And then I reckon she'll want you to stay.’
     ‘Well, I can't really stay for long, Thomas. I have children at home…William and Theresa. They're about your age and they'll want me to go home to them before too long.’
     ‘Oh.’ Thomas's face fell and Norah could see that he was saddened by the coming and going in his life. 
     ‘But I'd like to stay for a little while.’ She spoke warmly. ‘I'd like for us to get to know each other a little before I have to go. I do hope your mother will agree to that.’
     ‘She will,’ John called as he raced out the back door.
     ‘John will get her back.’ Mabel sniggered. ‘She always gives in to 'im.’
     Norah went to the stove and took the top off the steaming pot, peering in. The smell was dreadful. She stirred the contents with the large spoon that was lying beside it.  Some of it was stuck to the bottom of the pot. It smelled like it had been reheated far too many times. 
     ‘Do you have any other food in the house, Mabel? Norah ventured.
     Mabel shrugged. ‘Thomas? Is there?’
     Thomas went to the safe and opened it. ‘Not much…but there's a few vegetables in the garden out back. And there's a rabbit hangin' on the back wall. I shot it yesterday.’
     ‘I see.’ Norah grimaced. ‘Well, I think we could do better if we started again.’
     ‘Ma's not one for cookin' much. Sometimes we eat the veges raw.’
     ‘Well, that won't hurt you, Thomas. It'll keep the scurvy at bay.’
     ‘The what?’
     ‘Scurvy. Tis a disease people get when they don't get enough greens. It makes you feel very weak and tired and your gums sometimes bleed. When vegetables are cooked over and over like this they lose all the good things in them that keep scurvy away. So sometimes eating them raw is good for you.’
     ‘Oh,’ Thomas responded, clearly impressed. 
     John came through the back door, dragging his mother by the hand. Wynnie was still holding tight to her mother's skirts, burying her face in the folds. 
     ‘Still 'ere?’ Rebecca said reluctantly.
     ‘Ma!’ John scolded. 
     ‘The boys think I should let you stay…a bit.’
     ‘Tis up to you, Rebecca,’ Norah said. ‘I'd like to. I think we should at least talk.’
     ‘I s'pose,’ she said ungraciously. ‘There's not much room.’
     ‘I don't need much. We had as little when you were growing up.’
     ‘Yeah…it was a lot like this, eh?’ Rebecca looked about her and sighed deeply. ‘I thought I could do it different.’
     Norah sensed her thawing a little. ‘How about I get something cooking that might be…fresher than this?’ She spoke tentatively, not wanting to insult her daughter.
     ‘That'd be good, I reckon,’ Rebecca responded flatly.
     Norah nodded at Thomas and he headed out to skin the rabbit. She followed him to see what was in the garden and came back with some carrots and potatoes and a cauliflower that had perhaps one day left before it went to seed. She could see the drought had been really bad here.The ground was cracked and parched. The grass for as far as she could see was dry and pale. The few Mulga trees dotting the field about them were misshapen and almost leafless. She guessed that many of the farmers had already walked off the land, discouraged and poorer than when they started.
     There was an iron tub at the back of the house, a large slab of soap on its rim, Norah noted, hopeful she could get her grandchildren to make use of it before too long. She could see the remains of a wood fire with a few rocks around its edge. A good place for making damper in the coals. By evening she had disposed of the contents of the cooking pot, scoured it and made what the children decided was the best meal that they had ever tasted. Hot bread, tasty stew and cups of freshly made tea. She had even walked back down to the store and found a jar of fruit jam. They ate half the bread with the stew and the rest with jam and tea. 
     ‘I can't believe how much Wynnie has eaten. She hardly touches anythin' I make,’ Rebecca admitted as the little girl started to drift off to sleep on a palliasse in the corner.
     ‘Tis not easy with five,’ Norah conceded. ‘You've got your hands full, haven't you?’ She was nursing baby Arthur, stroking his tiny cheeks as he slept. 
     Rebecca was quiet for a long while. She watched as Thomas cleared the small table and put the dishes in a bowl by the stove.
     ‘He’ll take them outside an’ wash ’em in the tub. He’s a good boy.’
     Mabel sat in the corner of the room watching her mother and grandmother surreptitiously, as she made animal shapes with her fingers and held them up to the catch the illumination from the tin slush lamp on the table so that they threw life sized shadows on the walls. 
     ‘She's always mad at me, that one,’ Rebecca said quietly behind her hand, her eyes moving in the direction of her eldest daughter.
     ‘I can see that.’ Norah nodded.
     ‘Like me, I guess.’ She peered at Norah through downcast eyes.
     ‘Pretty much.’
     ‘Didn't Pa tell you?’ Rebecca queried suddenly.
     ‘No, he didn't.’ Norah answered without knowing precisely what Rebecca was referring to. ‘He hasn't been around lately.’
     ‘He was here,’ Rebecca went on, her voice less strained. ‘In sixty-eight. Before I had Wynnie. I told him to tell you. John…the children's pa, he'd gone off an' I...’ Rebecca stumbled through the words until her emotions overcame her and she burst into tears.  
     Norah put an arm around her and stroked her hair.
     ‘He was with some of the bushrangers.’ Rebecca sniffed loudly and wiped her nose on her sleeve. ‘When Pa came and started with his stories of the police gunnin' down Ben Hall's gang, John got scared and took off. I thought Pa might have turned him in himself, but he laughed about John, said he wasn't a real bushranger.’
     She gulped back tears and gazed into Norah’s face for a moment before going on.    ‘When I first came out here, I met him in the hotel in town. I had some work there in the laundry. Ben Hall and his gang, they had excitin' lives, or so it seemed to me. I thought with John it would be …different than it was. He was good when I had the boys. He came and went a bit but he brought back money, not like Pa,’ she added defensively.  ‘Enough to buy food and clothes for the boys, and a few things for me. He said one day they'd get the big haul.’
     ‘Yes, I'm sure he meant to do that.’ Norah tried to hide her annoyance.
     ‘He was nice then, Ma. But once Ben Hall's gang started gettin' caught…and killed, he got scared. He hardly ever came. Then I had Mabel and I was pretty sick. I couldn't be …with him, not like he wanted. I was so tired. Then Pa turned up. He found out where some of the bushrangers were livin' and landed out here. He was as surprised to see me as I was him. He raved on about how stupid I was and that I should go home.  But how could I? I had three little ones, no money, no way of goin' anywhere. He didn't offer to help me.’
     ‘And you asked him to tell me…what…to come out here?’
     ‘I just wanted you to know where I was. I gave him a note to give you, sort of a letter.  I'm not much good with writin', you remember.’ She sighed, her hardness dissolving.
     ‘I thought about tryin' to go home. I thought if you wrote and said I could, then I'd try. But then John came back. He was different…angry. It got harder for the bushrangers.  People were on to them, the police were after them. They didn't get away with things like in Ben Hall's day. John didn't know what to do with himself, and he took it out on us. He was rough, yelled a lot at the boys, hit them.’ She glanced at Mabel and lowered her voice.
     ‘Mabel stood up to him more. She hated him. Then I had Wynnie and I was sick again. John wasn't around much, which was good because he was awful when he was here. I was pretty low. The boys helped me, but Mabel was fed up. I didn't have much time for her, I guess, and then I got pregnant again. What could I do, Ma? He was real mean if I didn't...’
     Rebecca was crying. She leaned into Norah. The relief of having someone who cared, seemed to overwhelm her. 
     ‘I'm so sorry,’ Norah said gently. ‘There, there. You just cry it out. I'm here now. If I'd known I'd have come, sure I would.’ She rocked her daughter slowly, holding at bay her anger at Michael's thoughtlessness. ‘The boys said you think John might be…dead,’ she said after a few minutes. 
     ‘Maybe it's wishful thinkin'. But the word around is that he got caught up in a bad fight between some bushrangers and the police. We don't hear a lot. No one much goes into town to find out. We're not welcome in there…not surprisin', I s'pose. They say some of 'em were killed and some taken prisoner. It's been nine months and I haven't heard anythin'…but I'm thinkin' he might've been killed. I'm not next of kin because we weren't married, so no one would let me know. He didn't even know I was pregnant this time. I was a bit sick but I'd been like that for a while. I’m so tired...’
     ‘A bit of scurvy, I'd guess,’ Norah said. ‘You don't eat well, Rebecca. I can see that.  You have to look after yourself better. You've the children to think of too.’
     ‘I know, Ma, but, well, there's this fellow…a friend...’
     ‘How did you know?’
     ‘The children mentioned him. They seem to like him.’
     ‘He's a good man…I think. It's hard for me to trust my judgement. He's young. A couple of years younger than me. He talks funny, I mean his English is not so good. He came here from Germany and got a selection a couple of miles west of here, along the Lachlan. He's had a bit of trouble. Some of the locals weren't keen to have a foreigner around. But he persisted and he got a plot. He's workin' real hard and he's honest, I think. He comes into the store sometimes. I think it's only to see me. There's nothin' much there to buy.’
     ‘You're not wrong there,’ Norah agreed.
     ‘I know this place is horrible, Ma. I'd like to get out. Nels keeps askin' me to marry him. He says he'll look after us all. I don't know what to do. What if he turns out to be…like John?’
     ‘Do you love him?’
     ‘I care about him a lot. I guess it's love. He makes me laugh and he makes me feel cared about. But what if he changes? How do you know what a person's going to turn out like?’
     ‘You don't, not really. But I think you could trust the children's intuition about his character. Children have better instincts. They're not blinded by the same feelings as we women. But, yes, you must be careful. Tis important you make a good choice this time, Rebecca. You have five beautiful children, so nothing's been wasted. But what you decide now is very important.’
     Rebecca nodded and pushed her hair back from her face. She looked at her mother and grinned. ‘I'm glad you're here, Ma,’ she said softly. ‘Real glad.’
     'So am I, my love.'

To be continued....

Carol Preston

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