Wiseman's Creek, January, 1868
‘I'm sorry we've seen so little of each other these last few months. Kathryn hugged Nora at the front gate. ‘I was going to drop in a few times but this is the first day I've been out on my own and I did want to speak to you alone.’
‘Tis all right, Kathryn. I know Hamlet doesn't want us to be having so much contact, what with the business with Tom and Elizabeth. I don't know what we're to do, sure I don't, for Tom is quite determined that they'll marry sooner or later, even if they have to wait until they no longer need Hamlet's permission. Nor Michael's for that matter, for he's home again. He arrived out of the blue right on Christmas with the usual few trinkets and the hide to believe he'd be welcomed with open arms.’
‘So he doesn't approve of Tom and Elizabeth's intentions either?’
‘Goodness, no. He heard Mary talking about it. Tom tells him nothing but Mary's not inclined to keep quiet about much at all these days and so out it came. Michael thrashed about like a mad man, saying things I'd not repeat. What is it with these men? Surely they can see their children are deeply in love and what's the harm in it? I don't understand. Tom and Elizabeth would make a good life together. Anybody with half a brain ought to be able to see that.’
‘Hamlet and Michael are not considering this with their brains, sure they're not. But I'll not be kept from my dearest friend over it forever. I'm being a wee bit careful at the moment for Hamlet's upset about our Johnny as well and I'm worried his health is suffering. He's not a young man anymore, as he keeps reminding me.’
‘What's happened to Johnny?’
‘He's decided that he's going off on a stock drive up north. It seems he can't wait any longer and what with James working at the Quinns, Hamlet fears the farm will go to rack and ruin. Johnny just announced it a few days ago and he's off in a week or so. One of the big properties has a large herd they want shifted and he wants the experience. He says he'll be back by the end of the year but Hamlet's afraid once he's gone he won't come back at all. The boys want to make their own way in the world and we have to accept it. But it means we'll only have the three girls at home and while they work as hard as the boys, they're younger and not so strong and Hamlet just can't see us keeping things going.’
‘I'm so sorry, Kathryn. I wish I could say my boys would help but the way Hamlet is he'd not want that and there's really only Tom, for Joseph and Mick are not much use. Especially now with Michael at home. He's such a bad influence on them. He keeps babbling on about the adventures they'll have with him out in the big wide world one day. He makes them so discontented. I don't know what to do about that, either.’
‘Tis the worries of the world we have upon us at the moment, is it not? But it'll change, sure it will. It always does and in the mean time, we must bide our time and ask the good Lord to help us through it.’
Norah nodded. ‘I'd best get back inside. Mary has the little ones out the back feeding the chickens but they'll be done, I'm sure. Michael was still in bed when I came out for a bit of fresh air but he'll be wanting a feed soon, no doubt.’
‘And I'll get back to O'Connell. I've a cart full of fruit and vegetables here and it might cheer Hamlet up if I can sell them all.’
Norah heard Michael's snoring as soon as she opened the door so she pulled it closed quietly and headed back outside. She could see Mary with William and Therese playing in the shade of the large gum tree in the back yard. It was her favourite tree. She had watched it grow very tall in the sixteen years they had been at the farm, its leafy branches spreading widely across the paddock. Magpies had nested in it for the last few years, their chortling often the first thing she heard in the mornings as she woke. They were a comfort to her, a reassurance that life here on their tiny piece of land was fruitful and good.
She turned her attention to Tom who was turning over ground in the garden. As she approached him she could see the muscles rippling in his tanned arm, the sweat dripping from his forehead.
‘It looks like you could do with a wee break. You hardly stop for a moment these days.’
‘I've nothing to stop for, Ma.’ Tom kept digging, his teeth clenched tightly.
‘I wish you'd take it a little easy, son. I worry about you.’
‘It's not me you should be worrying about. Joseph and Mick are the ones who'll end up in trouble.’
‘I know it's hard when your father is around but it's likely he'll take off any time. The boys will be better then.’
Tom drove his shovel into the ground and looked at his mother. ‘I'm not sure they'll ever be better, Ma. I'm afraid they have too much of their father in them.’
‘He's your father, too,’ she said quietly.
‘More's the pity.’
‘Kathryn just came by.’ She saw Tom's expectant look. ‘She worries about this situation with you and Elizabeth.’
‘I'm sorry that it's causing you and her heartache, Ma. But there's nothing I can do about that. I'm twenty-one in a few months and as soon as
comes of age we'll be wed and there's nothing her father can do about it. She's beside herself with – ’ ‘You've been seeing her?’ Elizabeth
‘Best you don't ask. Then there's nothing for you to tell. I won't be kept from her and that's that.’ Tom began digging again, his determination evident as he drove the shovel into the ground.
Norah sighed and headed back into the house.
Stepping through the back door she could still hear Michael's snoring. She moved quietly to the small shelf against the back wall and lifted up the pile of newspapers that lay there. She pulled out a small package and opened it gently. It was a copy of Henry Kendall's new book of poems. She had bought it last time she had been in Kelso, but she was determined not to show it to anyone until Michael had gone from the house, for she was afraid he would destroy it. He hated her reading. And she hated keeping it a secret, especially from Mary, who would enjoy it as much as she did herself. She pulled the small book out and opened the cover but then closed it again quickly when she heard Michael stir.
She had just replaced it under the papers when he staggered into the room.
‘What's all the blasted noise out here?’ he said roughly.
Norah could see none of the old softness that used to surface in Michael once in while. Since he had been home this time, his voice had been harsh, his eyes had a haunted look and he was constantly glancing behind him, as if he expected someone to be sneaking up on him.
‘There's not a sound in the house,’ she answered evenly. ‘You must have been dreaming.’
‘Don't argue with me, girl. Where's the boys?’
‘I sent them to the creek to get water but they've been gone for an age. They're probably swimming. It's what they usually do.’
‘An' don't be pickin' on 'em, either. ou an' Tom are always pickin' on the boys,’ he mumbled as he swerved towards the table and dropped into a seat. ‘What's to eat?’
‘I'll heat up some porridge if you like.’
Michael didn't answer. He dragged his hands through his unruly beard and slumped onto the table. Norah pulled the pot of porridge back over the fire and began to stir it. A moment later, she felt her skirt being tugged roughly and as she turned Michael dragged her across his knee.
‘You weren't so nice to me las' night.’
His breath was putrid on her face and Norah was disgusted by the leer in his eyes. She had been grateful that he had fallen asleep quickly the night before after groping at her body for a few minutes. She was finding it increasingly difficult to abide physical contact with him, although most nights his attempts at love making ended in him giving up in frustration with his own impotence or slumping onto her body heavily as he fell asleep. It was only her want to avoid waking the children that prevented her from resisting his attentions altogether.
Now, as she gathered her thoughts, she pushed herself back onto her feet and straightened her clothes, glaring at him.
‘Don't presume to be having your way with me, Michael. You've long since lost the privilege due to a husband, for you've not behaved like one for many years. So I'll thank you for leaving me be. Now, I'll get you something to eat and if you'll take off those filthy clothes I'll wash them for you.’
Her eyes flashed with determination and as she stood over him, she saw him cower at her words. Feeling satisfied that she had made herself perfectly clear, she turned back to the porridge pot. She didn't hear Michael stand, and the crashing thud to the side of her head that sent her reeling to the floor took her completely by surprise.
‘You'll do just as yer told,’ he bellowed, standing spread eagle across her body, swaying as he struggled to maintain his balance.
Although she had almost blacked out, Norah forced herself onto her side, and while she was trying to stand up, he rammed his foot into her back, pushing her flat again, this time on her face. She cried out as the breath was knocked from her. Then, horrified, she felt Michael's body drop heavily onto hers as he began to grapple with her skirt with one hand, pushing her face into the hard dirt floor with the other.
Suddenly, the back door opened and she cringed as she heard her son's voice calling Michael names she had never heard Tom use. Then, the weight lifted from her body and Michael was thrown across the room.
‘Get out! Get out and don't come back!’ Tom yelled, dragging his father towards the door.
Norah watched in horror as Tom banged his father's head against the doorjamb and threw him onto the ground outside the hut. She pulled herself to her feet and hurried towards Tom, grabbing his arm.
‘No, Tom, no. He's not worth it. You'll regret it if you hurt him.’
‘I'll not regret it if I kill him,’ he snarled, pulling his arm from her grip and charging towards Michael's prostrate body.
He took hold of his father's shirt with both hands and hauled him to his feet, spinning him around. Michael's eyes were blank with shock. Drool poured from the side of his mouth, which hung open in a hideous grimace. He lifted both arms to protect his face and staggered backwards away from his son. Tom looked at him with contempt and dropped his arms to his side, breathing heavily.
‘You're right, Ma. He's not worth it.’ He brushed his clothes down as if they had been contaminated by contact with something putrid. Then he took a deep breath and moved a step closer to Michael, who backed up instinctively.
‘You're not welcome here. Ma's worked her hands to the bone to make this place a home for us and you're not part of it. Do you hear me? Now you get your things and get back in that cart of yours and get out of here before I do something I might well be sorry for.’
Norah saw Michael shudder at the strength and anger of his son. He flinched and sniffed loudly, his eyes darting about as if he was trying to think of some way to challenge what was being said to him. But after a moment, his shoulders slumped and Norah knew he was resigned.
‘I've me coat…inside…an' me bag. Then I'll be goin'. I was ready t' leave anyway. I've things to be about.’
Michael’s attempts to sound in control were almost laughable, but Tom kept a straight face and stood to one side as his father shuffled into the hut and returned, his coat, stiff with the grime of many years, under one arm. His canvas bag, which he had not opened in anyone's presence since he came home, was under the other arm, its torn handle hanging loosely over the side. He limped to the cart, which he never unpacked, and which, as far as they knew, still held the camping and gold digging equipment of the poor miner from whom he had stolen it.
As he readied the horse and climbed onto the bench seat, Norah was aware that Mary stood watching from under the gum tree; William and Therese either side of her. Michael didn't even glance in their direction as his horse started slowly towards the open gate. Only Joseph and Mick would be upset at their father's departure, she thought sadly. And this time, they would know that he didn't leave of his own accord, for Mary would surely give them a full description of his last few minutes at home.
Tom worked feverishly over the following months, driving the boys hard so that they helped around the farm, and in his spare time, he built an extra room on the hut and lined the walls with old newspapers to keep out the winter cold.
‘I'm so happy, Tom.’
said quietly as they sat close together under the large tree at the back of the hut. ‘I know you'll look after me well, even if Pa doesn't think so.’ Elizabeth
‘We'll have more, Lizzie. A place of our own, just as soon as I can get the boys working well enough to keep this place going for Ma. Joseph's eleven now and he’s getting better. I'm not sure Mick will ever shape up.’
‘It's fine, Tom. I won't mind being here. As long as we're together, I'll be happy.’
‘I know, but if I'm ever to have your father's approval, I'll have to do better than this.’
‘Pa has made his choice. It makes me sad but I'll not let him spoil our happiness. It's Ma I feel for. She's so mad at him and she hates to be. But he's just so unreasonable when it comes to you. I don't understand. He's always been such a fair man.’
‘Except when it comes to my Pa, if you can even call him that.’
‘I wonder where he is, Tom. He's been away a good while again, and you had that terrible fight. Do you think maybe he won't come back at all?’
‘I wish he wouldn't, but it won't surprise me if he turns up again just as bold as you like, expecting to come right back into the home.’
‘What would you do?’
‘I don't know. It would depend on Ma, but I don't think she wants him back either. She's well able to manage without him, with some help from me, of course. She does still have her work cut out with the boys, but he's no help there.’
‘And she gets so unhappy about Rebecca. I feel sad for her. Do you think your sister's still alive?’
‘I imagine so. But she deserves a whipping for not letting Ma know where she is. One day all these things will sort themselves out, Lizzie. Don't you worry yourself.’
‘I won't.’ She pressed in close to him. ‘When I'm with you I'll have nothing to worry about at all.’
It was a cold and windy June night and the first thud on the iron roof woke Norah from a deep sleep. Thinking it must be a branch fallen from the tree, she rolled over and drew Theresa close to her body for warmth. The next thud became a clattering bounce directly above her and she sat up feeling about the floor for her coat. There was no sound of movement from behind the curtain which hung between the boys' beds and the one she shared with Mary and Theresa. She moved as quietly as she could into the kitchen, only to find Tom was already there, stoking the fire under the stove. The dim light it provided flickered into life and threw pale shadows across the walls. There was another bang outside.
‘That wind's bad out there. Must be branches flying about,’ she said, hugging her ragged shawl around her.
The next crash onto the roof made Norah and Tom realise that it wasn't branches.
‘That was a rock! Somebody must have thrown it.’ Tom said quietly, holding his finger to his lips.
‘Tom, no. Who would…? Dear Lord. Do you think it might be your – ’
‘Who else? I've been wondering when Pa might turn up. But why would he be throwing rocks on the roof?’
There was another crash and a small cry from Theresa.
‘I'll go to her, Tom. But don't go outside. Tis dark as pitch out there. Goodness knows what your father's up to.’
The sound of a man's voice stopped them both in their tracks.
Kearns!' The shout came from just outside the door. ‘Don't make us come in after you. We know you're in there.’
‘Not again,’ Norah whispered, her voice shaking. ‘Someone's after him, Tom, like before. God knows what he's been stealing now.’
‘Go in with the children, Ma. I'll see to this,’ Tom said fiercely. ‘And send Joseph out here. It sounds like there's more than one.’
After a bit of shuffling, Joseph appeared in the kitchen, his hair dishevelled, his face drowsy with sleep.
‘What's up?’ he said wildly.
There was a loud banging on the door and a different voice this time.
‘We'll not be leavin', Mick. Open the door or we'll smash the bloody thing in.’
‘Who is it?’ Joseph grabbed at Tom's shirt.
Norah stood in the doorway of the bedroom, fearful for her little ones behind her and watching her sons trying to be brave.
‘I don't know who it is,’ Tom said, his eyes fixed on the door.
He moved to the stove and picked up the poker, handing it to Joseph. Then he ducked around the table to where their gun was leaning on the wall. He loaded it and moved back so that he was standing in front of the door. Motioning for Joseph to stand further back he reached out for the handle, then threw the door open and raised his gun so that the barrel was almost touching the man who nearly fell into the room.
‘What the...’ The man stumbled and regained his balance. ‘Whoa there, son,’ he said, backing away from the gun. ‘We've no argument with you. Where's Mick?’ He had to yell over the noise of the gusting wind which nearly whipped his hat off. One hand flew to his head to hold it on.
Norah was relieved to see the man had no weapon.
‘If you mean my father, I've no idea,’ Tom said. ‘He hasn't been here for months. He's not welcome here and neither are you. Now leave or I'll...’
Tom waved the gun at the man. Norah could now see that there were at least two others standing in the shadows outside. She could hear their long coats flapping in the wind. Joseph moved up closely behind his brother, raising the poker in the air. Norah knew he could easily be provoked into a fight, for she had seen him start one on more than one occasion. She was glad when Tom spoke to him quietly.
‘Easy, Joseph. I'm sure these men will go now that they can see Pa's not here.’
‘How do we know the little weasel's not hidin' in there?’ A gruff voice came from the dark.
‘Cause I'm telling you he's not here. That's why,’ Tom said firmly. ‘My Ma and brothers and sisters are inside. That's all. What do you want Pa for?’
‘He's taken our gold, is what,’ the man in front of Tom snarled. ‘We worked hard for it and he tricked us. Made out he was one of the soldiers come to ride guard for us back to
. It's mad out there since the new vein's been discovered. Men everywhere.’ Bathurst
‘Out where?’ Tom asked.
‘Hillend. Haven't yer 'eard about it?’
Tom peered over the shoulders of the man in front of him at the sound of this third voice. ‘No, we're not much interested in news of gold diggings. We're just farmers, minding our own business. Like I said, we haven't seen Pa in months. What he gets up to is not our concern.’
‘I'll tell you what he's been up to,’ the front man said loudly. ‘After he got our haul we made it our business to find out who he was, and if we'd been warned he'd have lost his head before he got near our cart. There's plenty have suspected him of bein' up to no good but they've not been able to prove anything. Men work damned hard for what they dig, and it's the likes of Mick Kearns that turns hard workin' men into killers. He'll get what he deserves one of these days.’
‘If we get 'old of 'im, it'll be sooner rather than later,’ one of the other men cut in.
‘I understand,’ Tom said, ‘but I can't help you. I doubt he'd show his face here either. He's done his family no favours with his thieving over the years. None of us have benefited one bit.’
‘I'm inclined to believe him, boys.’ The first man half turned to his mates. ‘I just hope some of the other diggers he's robbed don't come after him. They'd not be so ready to talk before they shoot, I reckon. Your father's made quite a name for himself…well a few names, it seems. But now the word's about he's not likely to fool too many more. I'd get your family well protected if I were you, son.’
The man backed away, still watching Tom's gun, and the three disappeared into the shadowy night. Above the wind in the trees, Norah heard the retreating hooves of their horses. Tom was shivering as he pushed the door closed. Joseph's face was pale.
‘Get by the fire and warm up before you go back to bed,’ Tom said to his brother. ‘I don't think they'll be back.’
‘No but others might,’ Joseph spat. ‘And what about Pa? Sounds like there's more than them would like to shoot him.’
‘So what's new about that?’
‘You don't even care, if they shoot him, do you?’ Joseph stoked the fire roughly and then stood tall, challenging his brother.
‘No, I don't, to tell you the truth. He's a thief and a madman. I'm surprised someone hasn't done him in already.’
‘That's enough, boys,’ Norah said, coming up behind them. She stoked up the fire and pushed the kettle back over the heat.
Tom quietly herded Joseph back to bed and sat with her. They drank tea together in silence, an unspoken understanding between them.
To be continued....