Spoiler Alert: These scenes are best read after you've read Daughter of the Hunter Valley
The water slopped over the rim of the bucket, soaking the hem of Rose’s skirt. It was a longer walk back from the spring than from the river, but the water was crystal clear and much nicer to drink than the murky brown liquid in the slow-moving river. She squinted into to dusk, not sure if the narrow band of darkness on the horizon would herald a storm and much needed rain; or if, like so many times, it would blow around them and the valley would remain parched and dusty. She hurried as fast as she could, desperate to get off the neighbouring land before the new owner found her stealing his water. She may have come to the colony a free woman, but she wouldn’t stay that way long if she couldn’t find a way to support herself. The track back to the tiny slab hut was rough and she tried not to slop the hard-won water as she went. The cottage her husband Bill had built for them draughty and cold, and her heart ached with the missing of him. It was probably too cold to be bothered bathing. But after a day of digging the meagre harvest of potatoes, she was exhausted and covered in dust, and just wanted to feel clean again. The pitiful tub was hardly worth the effort, but it was the last crop her husband had sown before he died. The straggly flock of sheep bleated at her as she lugged her water towards the hut. ‘Yes, I know.’ She told them, trying to block out the sound of their hungry chorus as she crossed the dirt to the door. She’d fed them the last of the oats she’d purchased, and tomorrow she’d find some pasture, somehow. If she went to Mr Garrick, she knew he’d make good on his offer to buy the sheep. It would be enough money to buy her passage to Sydney and see if she could find an owner for the meagre acres of rocky dustbowl her husband had purchased, sight unseen; and supposedly a place for them to build a wonderful new life. She couldn’t do it on her own. Bill had been the one with the farming knowledge, she’d worked her entire life in a cotton mill. She knew nothing about farming or animals.
Feeling considerably fresher and replete after a meal of boiled potatoes and a skimpy bath, she felt at least a little more like her own self. She’d even managed to wash her hair. The fire flickered and warm inside Bill’s big nightshirt, worn over her own shift, with a blanket around her shoulders. She was almost comfortable. Exhausted from the manual labour, she permitted herself a small amount of pride in her accomplishments. Bill would be proud of her. She wiped a tear from her chin. He’d always had more faith in her ability to adapt than she had. There was a decent amount of wood cut for the fire, Bill had cut and stacked it as he’s cleared the land for the crops. Before the drought the grass had grown tall and luscious between the towering trees. But removal of those trees had been the death knell for the McMahon’s small holding. When Bill had cut them down and dug out the stumps, it seemed to Rose, in hind sight, that he’d removed the very things that had held the dusty soil together. Torrential rains, called gully busters by the neighbours, had washed the shallow layer of topsoil into the river, and the subsequent drought and hot dry winds, had blown the rest away.
Rose pulled open the door to carry in an armful of wood. She was leaving and she may as well use the wood, there wasn’t much else by way of comfort. A movement beyond the privy caught her eye and a first she thought it was the big buck kangaroo she’d seen many times before. He was easily as big as a man when he stood on his hind legs and stared at her. The beast made her nervous, and she kept her distance, but the animal had always gone back to nibbling the grass where she tossed out the dirty water and produced the only bit of colour on the entire property. But this wasn’t the kangaroo, she saw a glimpse of white as a man staggered out of sight behind the tiny shed Bill had built over the pit they used for a toilet. ‘Hello?’ Whoever it was emerged from the other side of the outhouse and proceeded to lurch toward her. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ the man slurred. A drunkard. What was he doing here? Had he come expecting his base needs to be met? Anger rose in her. How dare he? Just because her husband was dead, it didn’t automatically follow that she would become a whore. ‘Go away,’ she called, grabbing several lengths of wood from beneath the small lean-to beside the door. She hurried back inside and closed the door behind her. She put the bar in place, and hoped it would hold up against a shoulder should the man decide he didn’t need her agreement to satisfy himself. She jumped, her heart thundering when the man thumped the door. ‘Let me in,’ he sounded a lot less drunk. Rose swallowed, eyeing the suddenly small looking length of timber across the door. ‘No, go away.’ The man kicked at the door, but it held. ‘Please, let me in. I don’t mean you any . . .’ Rose backed toward the fire, picking up the poker, ready should the man gain entry. Her eyes scoured the small space. The bed by the window, she could escape, if the door looked like it might give beneath his beatings, she could lift the hatch and escape into the night. She thought of the screeching bedsprings and worried he would hear if she took that course of action. If he broke down the door, she wouldn’t care if he heard her jump onto the bed. All went quite for a time and she wondered if he’d gone. She crept closer to the door and poker held at the ready, and rested her ear against the timber. The soft sound of movement was faint, but audible. He hadn’t gone, and by the sound of it, he was sat on the stoop. What was he waiting for? Well, whatever he expected, he could sit there until hell froze over. She silently backed away from the door and sat down in the chair she’d pulled up by the stove and considered her bath water. She could open the door and toss the icy water over him. Teach the rotter a lesson, not to come sniffing around her home expecting-- , whatever he was expecting. A lump clogged her throat. Bill, why did you have to die and leave me here?
She must have dozed off, for she started at a noise beyond the closed door. When she heard nothing more she straightened and stretched her stiff neck. She looked longingly in the direction of her bed. She couldn’t see anything in the dark, the candle had gone out, probably in one of the many gusts that invaded the tiny hut. However, a red glow still shone from in the firebox and she quietly as was possible, grabbed the mitt and opened the door, and shoved another piece of wood inside. She’d have to go out to use the privy when the dawn came, but she had no idea how long she’d been asleep or if the man was still there. She rose, creeping across the packed dirt floor once more and listened at the door. A strange sound came to her ear, a soft keening sound of someone in immense pain. It wasn’t the sound of a man who’d come to hurt her. It must be a ruse. She backed away once more and tried to ignore her painful bladder. She would have to use the pot. She hoped he wouldn’t hear her moving about. ‘Hello?’ the man said as she finished her ablutions and was pushing the chamber pot beneath the edge of the bed once more. ‘Why don’t you just go away. I’m not going to allow you to come in.’ There was a long silence before she heard the sound of the man climbing to his feet and lumbering away. Rose waited a long time before she crossed to the bed and climbed beneath the covers.
It was several weeks before she had yet another nocturnal caller, only this time she was more prepared. She’d sold the sheep and had been to see Molly Morgan and used some of the proceeds to purchase an old musket that she had primed and ready to fire. If anyone tried to bother her, she’d shoot first and ask questions later. This time, instead of hiding inside, she flung open the door, and stepped out onto the stoop, gun raised and ready. Let them just try it! But instead of a drunken local dirt farmer standing in her yard, there was her well-dressed neighbour, owner of the spring she snuck her water from and he looked drunk. Rose frowned. ‘Mr Barker-Trent?’ ‘I’m sorry Mrs Mc. . . McMahon,’ he stuttered. He held a bottle of grog in one hand, as he weaved in her direction. ‘Can you remove th, that?’ He nodded at the gun she pointed in his direction, almost tipping forward as he inclined his head. ‘I’d much prefer to have a convershashon without that pointed at me!’ Rose almost laughed at him. This was no pushy suitor, this was her toff neighbour who had even less idea how to farm than Rose did. More than once Bill had pulled the man’s fat from the fire, though he was doing better now he had a decent couple of convicts. She could have done with a bit of assigned labour, particularly with Bill lying beneath the wonky cross she’d tied together and barely been able to drive into the earth. Thankfully Mr Garrick had sent over a couple of men to dig the grave, she’d have never been able to manage it. ‘What can I do for you Mr Barker-Trent?’ ‘It’s what I can do . . .’ his eyes crossed and he listed to the left, bobbed a bit and then righted himself. His stumble brought him closer and she let the barrel drop a little but didn’t put it away from him altogether. ‘I’m sorry to bother you Mrs McMahon,’ he said, his dark grey eyes crinkled with earnestness. An involuntary smile twitched at the corner of her lips. What was her wealthy neighbour doing here, drunk and blathering? ‘No bother Mr Barker-Trent, but what can I do for you?’ ‘Perhaps we could take this conversation inside your . . .’ he rocked back on his heels as he tried to focus on the ramshackle cottage, he stumbled again, catching himself before he crashed to the ground. Rose thought she’d be safe enough with him and stepped inside, backing across the room to allow him to follow. He stumbled in after her, eyed the solitary chair by the fire with a beady stare and made for it. Where he crashed over and broke one of the legs. ‘Watch what you’re doing!’ Rose yelped, but it was far too late for warnings, the chair was busted and Mr Barker-Trent was leaning sideways as he examined the only chair she owned, now useless for anything but firewood. Tears welled in her eyes. ‘Shorry, ‘bout that!’ He turned toward her, staggered over and as she sidestepped to avoid him, he shot past her and fell, springs screeching, onto her bed. Her and Bill’s bed. The bottle of cheap rotgut glugging out onto the covers. Rose shot across and plucked the bottle from his limp grasp and stared in dismay at the slow creep of dampness on her bed. Wonderful. She couldn’t wash the bedding and hope to get it dry in a day. The days while dry, were miserable and cold and not a breath of wind to move a wet blanket. She’d just have to try to sleep to one side and hope she could avoid the damp. First, though, she needed to remove her drunken neighbour from not only her bed, but her home as well. Perhaps it would be best to let him sleep it off for a while. She could always bring in the washing tub, if she turned it upside down she could use it for a seat.
Hours passed where Mr Barker-Trent lay as if dead on her bed, only the occasional snuffle or whimper gave her any indication he wasn’t. She sat on the hard and uncomfortable ring of timber and cursed the drunken toff. She’d eaten the remainder of salt beef and boiled potatoes, and waited for him. She eyed the half empty bottle of rum and realised he must have drunk more than just what was missing from the bottle, for she was certain a good half of that was soaked into the covers on her bed. Angry and more than a little beaten, she picked up the bottle and took a sip. Coughing she swore at her visitor, and took another slug. Damn it, why did this have to happen? Perhaps she should walk up to Shelby and find one of his men to come and get him. But it was cold and almost dark. Perhaps she should just drag him out, go to bed and let him find his own way home. The rum burned her throat, but she found the warmth in her belly comforting, so she took another swallow and eyed her bed longingly. Fumed at him and plonked the bottle on the table and crossed to try to get him off. The man was a dead weight and Rose didn’t have a hope of moving him. She tugged, shoved and screeched, but Mr Toff Barker-Trent, only rolled over, snored and muttered and stayed right where he was. Rose returned to the uncomfortable upturned tub, with the jutting ring of timbers and sat down, stared at first the man, then the bottle. Why not? She took another swig. Damn him, she’d drink the whole lot.
Rose came slowly awake, vaguely aware of an arm hooked over her hip and the certain knowledge that she was totally naked. She squeezed her eyes closed, pretending for a moment that the naked man pressed to her back was Bill. But she knew it wasn’t. It was in the rhythm of his breath that she knew it wasn’t her darling husband. Slithers of memory cut small knicks into her aching head and she recalled drinking his rotgut before climbing onto the bed with him. The journey from them both being dressed and atop the covers to naked beneath wasn’t one she wished to examine, and so she gently lifted his arm, and slid out of the bed. She grabbed her clothes, and without given the action due thought, shot outside, across the yard to the privy where she intended to get dressed. It was only when she emerged from the tiny outhouse that she saw the man standing near the gate to the sheep field. Oh no, she knew by the look in his eye that he’d seen her dashing naked across the yard, her clothes bundled in her arms. ‘Can I help you?’ She lifted her chin, she’d not be cowed in her own place. Certainly not by a convict. She could see by his ragged clothing he was one. ‘I’m looking for the master, Mr Barker-Trent.’ Rose cringed inwardly, but thinking quickly, she realised she’d be better to not let on his master was snoring on her bed. ‘sorry, I’ve not seen him.’ ‘Right, then if you do, can you let him know I was looking for him.’ ‘I will.’ She would send him on his way, as soon as she could get him to wake up and out of her bed and into his clothes. She pushed aside the memories of the night before. With any luck, he’d have been too drunk to remember. Lord, she wished she was.
Rose trudged up the hill to Shelby Estate and Mr Barker-Trent. There was only the very young curly headed lad near the horse yard when she finally topped the path and was on level ground. For reasons she’d not examined too closely, she’d not spent her money on a trip to Sydney and putting her farm, such as it was, up for sale. With the drought ongoing, the place wouldn’t fetch enough for her to buy passage back to England, so she had just stayed. And all the while, deep inside her, a life had been growing. She didn’t know what to do, but Mr Barker-Trent was a decent man, and had sent the boy to chop wood, or deliver a piece of pork for her. And most nights he’d crept into the hut and into her bed. This was the first time she’d been to see him. But she couldn’t wait. She had to seek his help. If he could buy her farm, she could go home and no one would be any the wiser that the child she carried wasn’t Bill’s.
‘Is Mr Barker-Trent around?’ Rose lifted her chin. She knew the men were suspicious of her, but she had to see him. Today, she had to leave before anyone realised she was expecting. ‘Mrs McMahon,’ Robbie Barker-Trent stood in the doorway of a hut not much bigger or better constructed than her own. Her gaze darted around for the grand home that must be lurking somewhere. The likes of Mr Barker-Trent, with his round vowels and perfectly tied cravat, had to have a huge home like that of the Everette’s. ‘Mr Barker-Trent, I was hoping I might have a word?’ ‘Indeed, would you like a cup of tea?’ ‘Thank you,’ she inclined her head, ‘that would be nice.’ She’d long ran out of tea, and the cow was long sold. As was everything. Her mouth watered at the idea. Perhaps she should have asked young Charlie to bring tea instead of the meat. He gave orders for Charlie to go to the fields with the men, and crossed to an outdoor hearth and began to feed sticks to the coals, filled the billy with water from a bucket and then looked at her. ‘Rose, are you well?’ He squinted at her, concern evident on his face. ‘No, I’m afraid I’m not. I’m expecting a child.’ Rose could have bitten her tongue off. She’d come with no intention of telling him of her pregnancy, and she’d just blurted it out. ‘Pregnant?’ His eyes grew wide with a kind of wonder. ‘We’re having a child?’ Rose began to weep. He’d not even questioned it was his. Dear Lord, she wanted to love this man. If only things had been different. Everyone knew he was awaiting the arrival of his family. Not that he’d ever mentioned them to her, but it was the talk of the settlement and Molly Morgan, who seemed to know everything about everyone, had tried to warn her off, and it had been none too subtle. ‘Rose, don’t cry, it will be well.’ ‘How can it be?’ she turned away from him, her shoulders curled forward protectively. ‘I will look after you.’ Robbie placed a hand on her shoulder and she longed to turn into it, to beg him to hold her. She shrugged it off. ‘How can you take care of me, of us? You have a wife and family.’ When he didn’t respond she glanced over her shoulder to see his face was ashen beneath the overly long hair and beard. ‘Robbie?’ ‘My wife is dying, she won’t be coming.’ The breath froze in Rose’s throat, clogged her up and ached as much as her heart. She ached for Robbie and the obvious misery she saw in his face, she ached for her unborn babe, she ached for Bill and the babies she never gave him. She ached for herself. ‘And your children?’ Rose forced herself to ask. Just because his wife was dying, didn’t mean he intended to marry her. It didn’t mean anything at all. ‘There’s only Maddy, and she’s a kind girl. You will grow to care for her.’ Rose turned to stare at him then, her mouth gaped as she saw he meant it. ‘But,’ she began. ‘No,’ he interrupted, ‘I love my wife, but she’s not been well for almost all our marriage, she shall never make the trip to New South Wales. I knew it when I left England, much to my shame.’ Rose crossed to take his hand in hers, ‘Robbie, I’m so sorry.’ ‘I will take care of you, and the babe, I promise.’ ‘I came here to ask you to buy my farm, then I could afford to return to England.’ ‘I will buy the land, and we shall fix the cottage, and you can remain there until such time as . . .’ he faltered, cleared his throat, ‘Until such time as I am free.’ He pulled her to him, his expression a mix of delight and agony.
Five years later Rose stood outside the tiny cottage where Robbie lived, she’d finished the washing, and young Luke was off climbing a tree, or chasing a lizard, as usual. She heard Mr O’Brien’s bullocks clanking and clanging down the track long before even the cloud of dust could be distinguished between the trees. When the dray drew up in the farmyard, she saw a pretty young woman with dark hair all messed and no bonnet on her head, seated on the top, her head swivelling from side to side as her quick gaze taking in the lay of the place. It had to be Robbie’s daughter.
Rose walked along the bank of the river, Luke was playing in the shallows, at least it was still cool, the river was clear and she felt optimistic. With the arrival of Madeleine, Robby would be able to explain things to his daughter and then . . . She would have to wait and see. She’d half expected Robbie to come last night, and though she’d waited until after midnight, he hadn’t put in an appearance. ‘Mam,’ Luke called. The urgency in his voice alerted her immediately that something was terribly wrong. She lifted her skirts and hurried along the bank to where her son was standing thigh deep in the water, pointing to the far side where something was snagged in the roots of a gum tree. She peered at the mass of cloth, soon realising it was a man lying face down. His dark hair, his lovely soft dark hair, swaying in the current as the river tugged at him, trying to drag him away.
‘I made you tea,’ Luke said. She looked into the fearful eyes of her son. She nodded and attempted a reassuring smile. ‘Thank you,’ she took the offered cup. What were they to do now? Although no one knew for certain that Luke was Robert Barker-Trent’s son, she knew they suspected it. While he lived, she and Luke were afforded at little acceptance. Without him, there was nothing. Molly Morgan would know what she should do. She might even help her find somewhere to live. She couldn’t stay on in the little cottage now. Robbie was dead and the girl would sell Shelby. She had no place here anymore. ere to edit.