Angry voices penetrated the walls, filling Molly with fear. She could not understand the language but froze at the tones, as ferocious as the storm. Watery moon shadows clawed the ceiling. She followed their movements, straining to listen. Lightning cracked and thunder filled the room. She gasped, rolling over to face Abel. Instinct warned they would take him.
He lay facing her, eyes shut. Her gaze fixed on his face as the voices got louder. Thunder exploded, drowning out the rain hammering the tin roof but still, he did not stir.
Closer. They were coming closer.
She inched over to Abel, seeking reassurance and protection – from what, she did not know. She had always felt safe with him but now, fear clutched her insides. She needed him. She would always need him.
Thunder boomed, directly overhead now, and Abel awoke with a start. His eyes met hers. Holding her gaze, he registered the footsteps in the hallway.
Molly and Abel reached for each other.
The door flew open, hitting the wall. Lantern light flooded the room.
“Take him and go!” Molly’s father yelled.
Strong hands dragged Abel from the bed.
“Mowwy come too,” Abel yelled. “Mowwy come too!”
Molly crawled to the end of the bed. A starfish hand stretched out to Abel as tears spilled onto chubby cheeks.
“Aaabooo!” she wailed. “Aaabooo!"
At twelve months of age, Molly had no words to express the breaking of her heart as Abel was torn from her life.
The sun hid behind the treetops, drowning the campsite in shadows. Twilight was Jeremiah’s favourite time of the day; not for the multi-hued sunsets, peach and rose this evening, or the birdsong echoing through the forest, but because it was time for his first drink. He would welcome the oblivion when it came later but first, would enjoy reminiscences of happier times. Soon, when the gang returned from looting, there would be bawdy songs and hearty laughter but for now, the only other human in sight was Alice. Whisky jar and tin cup in hand, he paused on his way to the fireside, listening to her singing. Her lilting Irish voice and the smell of stewing meat stimulated his senses from across the clearing.
Ma Gorden, with a basin full of chopped vegetables, appeared in the doorway of her hut. She glanced at Jeremiah, tutting at his whisky jar, before crossing to Alice by the cooking fire. Jeremiah smiled, contentedly. Abel and the dogs would be back from hunting soon and there would be a fine dinner tonight.
He threw a log onto the glowing embers and lowered himself into the sturdy armchair he had fashioned long ago from a large oak trunk. While he sipped from a large whisky, the fire caught hold, ever-changing flames providing a warm focus point for his memories to unfold.
For fifteen years, Jeremiah Bailey and his son had lived deep within the bush in the colony of NSW. During the early days, with the constant threat of the law catching up with them, they had moved often. Thankfully, the current location had been home for several years. They still lived rough but they had acquired a family of sorts and enjoyed a modicum of comfort.
Jeremiah was still a wanted man but according to the word in the bush, anyone who remembered he had a son when he fled Rosetown all those years ago, assumed the boy would not have survived. After all, how could a drunken murderer and thief like Jeremiah Bailey care enough, or have enough sense, to look after a child with neither woman nor home? He had once had the woman and had been working toward the home, his ticket-of-leave almost within reach, but those dreams were long gone.
Copper hair and amber eyes formed and flickered in the flames and Jeremiah thought he smelled jasmine. Sighing, he poured another drink. He had hoped for happier recollections, perhaps of Manchester but it seemed he had no choice, memory being a door which opens at random. His wife knocked on his senses, demanding to be remembered and when he thought of Tillie, it was rarely with the love they had shared on the voyage to New South Wales. Resigned, he let his thoughts drift back to a time he would rather forget.
Jeremiah was happy that day. Striding through the camp grounds, he nodded uncharacteristically to one of the guards. He ducked through the tent flap, stopping for a moment to adjust to the gloom. On the far side, in the sleeping area, Tillie was folding clothes, placing them into a box. Beside their mattress, the baby lay sleeping in the cradle Jeremiah had made while listening to Tillie screaming with birthing pains. He smiled as he remembered Tillie’s delight when she saw it, when she was back to her calm and gentle self. Most babies in the camp slept in wooden boxes, exasperated mothers having rocked them to sleep in their arms beforehand.
Jeremiah took three steps, closing the distance between himself and his wife. He thrust a bunch of wildflowers and weeds at her.
“To celebrate,” he said. “You’re a free woman now. Is there a jam jar or something to put them in?”
Tillie glanced at the flowers and frowned.
“I know they’re not much, luv,” Jeremiah said, “but we’ll have a proper celebration when I’ve got my ticket-of-leave, too.”
Tillie squeezed past him. “That’s two years away, Jerry, and I’m free now.”
She began straightening objects on the table, utensils that were already neatly ordered, Jeremiah noticed. Dread hit the pit of his stomach and he let his arm drop to his side. A smattering of petals drifted to the hard-packed dirt floor.
“It’ll go quick,” he said.
“No, it won’t!”
The baby woke and began to cry. Absently, Jeremiah reached out to rock the cradle.
“Time drags when you’re a convict.” Tillie turned to face him. ”I’ve done seven years and I don’t want to do two more. And that’s what it’ll feel like if I stay.”
“If you stay? What are you saying, Till?”
“I’m leaving you. I’m sorry, Jerry.”
Jeremiah dropped the flowers onto the table and paced a few steps, running a hand through his thick black hair. Claustrophobia threatened to suffocate him and he fought the urge to drag Tillie outside into the air. Only the thought of other convicts witnessing his desperation stopped him.
The cradle stilled and the baby whimpered.
“You can’t leave,” he said, but it was more of a plea than a demand. “Where would you go? You must stay, Tillie. I’ll take care of you and one day...”
“I need to live now, while I’m still young, not plan to enjoy life sometime in the future. I’m sorry, Jerry, I really did love you. I’m so sorry.”
Heartened by the tears in her eyes, Jeremiah reached for her. She stepped back.
“I’m going to Parramatta with Lenny Murphy,” she said, quickly. “He ... he’s moving his business there and he wants me with him.”
Jeremiah’s heart sank. Lenny was a free settler with a thriving business in imports. He had noticed the way Murphy looked at Tillie but, until now, had felt nothing but pride. He was used to other men admiring his wife. It struck him now that perhaps the birth of the baby was not the only reason for Tillie's recent neglect of her nighttime marital duties.
“What about the baby?” he demanded. “He’s not even a year old yet. For God’s sake, Till, we’re a family now.”
Tillie could not meet his eyes. She began separating weeds from the flowers wilting on the table.
“I’m leaving Abel, too,” she said, softly. “Lenny doesn’t want him. He wants...” she darted a quick glance at her husband, “...he wants me to produce his own sons to take over his business one day.”
Jeremiah stared at her, his mouth a grim, angry line. He could just about understand her wanting to leave him. Tillie’s family back in Cornwall was poor but respectable. Unlike her, the rest of the family had chosen to go hungry rather than steal from the village shops. Tillie was a convict but that did not stop her from craving respectability. But for a mother to leave her own child; what kind of woman could do that?
Abel’s whimpering rose to a wail.
Jeremiah stormed from the tent.
Tillie had been gone only a few days when Jeremiah received the summons to the Captain’s office, for an interview with a government representative.
Edward McFarland had his back to the fire, blocking any heat which otherwise may have reached the Captain, the clerk scribbling away at his desk in the corner, or Jeremiah himself as he stood inside the doorway of the hut. McFarland fixed his stony eyes on Jeremiah until he had the desired effect. Jeremiah dropped his gaze to the floor and shifted uncomfortably.
“A man alone cannot raise a child,” McFarland stated. “The boy should be given the chance of a proper upbringing.”
Jeremiah's misery plummeted to a new depth. As if his wife’s desertion was not enough, it seemed he was to lose his child as well. He stared at a frayed hole in his shoe, forcing himself to think of his son rather than himself. Finally, his beaten gaze met McFarland's arrogant one.
“So he would have two parents caring for him? He'd be part of a proper family?”
“We don’t place children with anyone but married couples,” McFarland answered.
Jeremiah scratched his newly grown beard. He thought of Abel playing in a garden, rosy cheeked with health, his little clothes gently flapping on the line, smelling of sunshine. He imagined him sitting at a desk with slate and chalk, hand waving high in the air because he knew the answers. He pictured him in a dark suit with a red cravat, a beautiful bride by his side. Did he love his son enough to give him up? Reluctantly, he nodded.
“It breaks my heart,” he said, “but I have to do what’s best for Abel. It’s far better he grows up with decent law abiding folk than with me.”
McFarland laughed shortly before clearing his throat. “It’s an ex-convict couple who will adopt him,” he said. “No self-respecting immigrants want the offspring of you lot, I’m afraid. Too much bad blood, you see. Besides, there are enough young girls of their own kind getting themselves into trouble these days.”
Jeremiah's relief was immense. “If my son is destined to be tainted with the convict stigma,” he said, “he’ll be better off with his own father. I’ll not give him up.”
“Well, I can't force you to make the right decision, Bailey,” McFarland sniffed, “but I warn you we will be keeping a close eye. Any evidence of neglect and the matter will be passed immediately into the hands of the government.”
Fortunately, for father and son, several single mothers in the prison camp had their sites set on Jeremiah. While he worked from dawn to dusk with a road gang on the outer edge of Rosetown, they gladly looked after the baby.
One spring morning he straightened from the backbreaking task of splitting rocks and wiped a sleeve across his sweaty brow. On the far side of a freshly ploughed wheat field, a heavily pregnant woman was feeding chickens in her back yard. He watched her for a moment, remembering his Tillie, how pretty she was despite the harsh conditions, and how she had once loved him and the boy.
“Look sharp and get on with it, Bailey,” Hamilton, the overseer yelled at him.
As he hoisted the splitter to his shoulder, the woman stumbled, clutching her stomach. She leaned against the side of the shed and slid to the ground.
Ignoring Hamilton, Jeremiah jumped the fence and ran across the field. He hurdled the lavender hedge bordering the farmhouse yard.
“The baby,” the woman gasped. “It’s coming.”
“Don’t worry, missus,” Jeremiah said. “I’ll help you inside and then we’ll see about finding the midwife. Is your husband...?”
“There’s no time,” she panted. Her face puckered into a grimace of pain. “It’s coming now!”
By the time Hamilton had sent a man to locate the midwife and bring her to the farmhouse, Jeremiah had delivered Molly Hart into the world. How, he did not know for he had been banished from the tent during the birthing of his own child.
In the weeks following Molly’s birth, Jeremiah visited Maggie Hart and baby Molly whenever he could get permission from Hamilton. Often he took Abel with him. While the little boy sat near the kitchen fire, offering his finger for Molly to grasp and gabbling to her in his own language, Jeremiah sat at the table drinking tea with Maggie. He enjoyed her company and she made excellent scones, jams and biscuits.
For once, curfew was in his favour as he felt more comfortable when Mr. Hart was out working in the fields. Helping to bring Molly into the world had created a bond between himself and Maggie, a friendship which was neither shared nor appreciated by her husband. Although Edwin was outwardly civil, had even expressed gratitude for the safe delivery of his child, Jeremiah felt uneasy in his company. But with just Maggie and Molly, he was always sorry to leave the homely atmosphere.
Maggie sensed his reluctance to take Abel back to the camp. One day as she walked them to the gate, she turned, placing a hand on his arm.
“Mr Bailey, my husband and I are not inclined toward using free convict labour but perhaps I could help him see his way clear to making an exception. We could pay you a few coppers here and there to make it fair. Would you be willing?”
Jeremiah, suddenly speechless, felt his spirits rise. He wondered if the offer included living on the premises. If so, it would be the best thing to happen for Abel, for both of them, since Tillie abandoned them. He had an insane urge to pick Maggie up and swing her in circles, whooping with delight.
“That would be good of you, Mrs Hart,” he said, quietly.
Maggie smiled. She patted his arm and turned to go inside.
The Harts’ differed in their reasons for not employing free convict labour. While Edwin spurned any kind of involvement with outcasts from the old country, Maggie felt sympathy for these luckless people. Many of them had been reduced to committing crimes to provide for their starving families or for their own survival. She had no desire to take advantage of their unfortunate situations.
After talking and arguing long into the night, Maggie finally convinced her husband that it was their Christian duty to help Jeremiah and his child. The next morning, she attended the government office in the newly erected Town Hall. Within a week, the papers assigning Jeremiah to the Harts were drawn up and authorised.
As they left the prison camp, Abel turned several times, waving to his aunties over Jeremiah’s shoulder. He chortled happily as he thought about Cakes ‘n’ biksits ‘n’ Mowwy. An hour later, Jeremiah set him down on the Hart property and he made a beeline for the house.
Jeremiah breathed deeply, each breath clean and sweet with honeysuckle and eucalyptus. He fancied he caught a whiff of pine from the distant forestland. Christmas trees. Abel would soon have his first Christmas in a real family home.
He turned at the sound of Edwin coming out onto the front porch and strode forward with a smile.
“This way,” Edwin said, ignoring Jeremiah's outstretched hand and veering off around the back.
Between them, they cleared a corner of the shed, providing a sleeping area.
“I do appreciate this, Mr Hart,” Jeremiah said, as Edwin turned to go.
Edwin looked him in the eye. “Like the wife said, if it were not for you, we might not have our Molly with us today. The wife will bring bedding for your mattresses and some supper for you and the boy.” He turned at the door, silhouetted by the sunlight. “And make sure the boy doesn't go running in and out of the house. Teach him his place.”
Jeremiah smiled grimly, determined not to let the man’s attitude dampen his and Abel's newfound good fortune.
Edwin spoke to Jeremiah only to explain his duties to which Jeremiah applied himself enthusiastically. Fences were to be mended, the chicken coop cleaned, Plodder, the cart horse fed and cared for, and the yards, front and back, kept swept and tidy. Twice a week, he was to deliver eggs, tomatoes and other produce to the general store for sale, at the same time collecting supplies for the Hart household. He was still under curfew but providing he carried his ticket with provisional permissions on his person, he was allowed on the streets and in town at the Harts’ discretion.
Although Abel slept in the shed with his father, he took his afternoon naps with Molly in her room, a routine to which Edwin was strongly opposed.
“He’s just a little boy,” Maggie said, and with a determination that seemed to surface only where the children were concerned, she talked her husband around.
Before long, Abel began sleeping some nights with Molly as well. Maggie often heard them chortling and laughing before they wore themselves down enough to sleep.
One night she approached Molly's bedroom, her footsteps deliberately loud enough for the children to hear. There was a sudden silence on the other side of the door and she listened, waiting for the pitter-patter of little feet to cease before opening the door. Molly stood, clutching the rails of her cot, laughing and pointing at Abel. The little boy lay in the bed with his eyes closed, unaware that his smile annihilated his pretense of sleeping.
Thankfully, Maggie managed to get Molly settled down in her cot again. The baby often fought against sleep, whimpering and squirming until Maggie gave in and put her in the bed with Abel. On such occasions, before she had finished humming a lullaby, both children would be safe in the land of dreams.
Jeremiah gratefully accepted the coppers Maggie pressed into his hand with increasing regularity. They soon amounted to shillings and then pounds and the thought of being a free man, able to provide a home for his son, filled his mind as he worked.
The nights, however, were difficult. Edwin tickling Molly before she went to bed and Maggie's lullabies made Jeremiah envious of the family unit. In his corner of the back shed, he lay awake long into the nights, churning with loneliness as he thought of Tillie in the arms of another man.
Christmas came and went barely noticed by Abel. The only difference was the raspberry jelly which accompanied the supper Maggie brought them. Jeremiah had intended making him a small toy out of scrap wood but his working hours were long and time ran out. Next year, he thought as he painted pickets on Boxing day, although it was becoming increasingly harder to harness his optimism.
The best times were the trips into town, just he, Abel and Plodder. With more freedom to roam these days he soon discovered that a few coppers from his stash would buy a jar of whisky. Not only did the fiery liquid help him sleep, it also provided a warm source of consolation.
Suddenly, it was winter and every night was colder than the one before. One or two slugs were no longer enough to reach the desired effect and so he increased his intake. Before long, he was spending a few shillings a week, rather than pennies.
Maggie noticed a distinct slackening off in his work and it disturbed her to see him becoming more and more unkempt. His long hair was lank and greasy and his beard, straggly. She approached him one morning as he half-heartedly nailed loose palings into place along the back fence. The musky smell of dirt and old sweat hit her before she came within speaking distance.
“Jeremiah, I must speak with you,” she said.
Sour whisky breath hit her as he turned. She stepped back, batting a hand before her face, frowning.
“Sorry, Mrs. Hart.” Jeremiah exhaled through the side of his mouth. “Just a little whisky to help me sleep. Forgot to clean my teeth this morning.”
The look Maggie gave him said he had forgotten every ritual of personal hygiene. At least Abel still had reasonably clean clothes, she thought, at the beginning of the day anyway.
“It’s too much whisky,” she said. “Not that I approve of the stuff in any measure. It ruins lives, Jeremiah, and the smell ruins the day for people around you.” She took another step back and screwed up her nose to emphasise her point. “And I certainly don’t want the smell of liquor around my Molly.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs Hart,” Jeremiah repeated. “You’ve been so good to Abel and me. The last thing I’d want is to upset you. And you’re right – whisky is not the way. I’ll stay away from it, I promise.”
“Think of the boy if it’s too hard to do it for yourself. I’ll make sure there’s chamomile tea in the pot for you before you go to bed.” Bravely, she leaned forward to pat his arm. “Herbs and a clear conscience are all you need for a good night’s sleep.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Jeremiah said, head bowed. “I truly do appreciate everything you’re doing for us.”
“I appreciate what you did for me, Jeremiah, what you’ve done for my family,” she said, “but you must watch yourself or Edwin will have the two of you back to the camp in an instant. It pains me to have to say it, Jeremiah, but your clothes - and yourself - could do with a good wash.”
Jeremiah was mortified. Even in the over-crowded, stinking below-decks on the four-month voyage to the colony, he had scrubbed his clothes and body as regularly as he could. Now here he was with access to soap and water every single day and he abused the privilege.
“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled.
As he watched Maggie retreat to the house, he vowed to make good this opportunity to turn his life around. He would clean up and stay away from the whisky. Squaring his shoulders, he turned back to his work with renewed vigour.
Unfortunately, the tea failed to help him sleep and worse, provided no numbing sensations for his emotions. Day after day, he struggled with fatigue, feeling utterly wretched. Night after long, lonely night, he fought the urge for whisky. When he could stand it no more, he resorted to the jar but promised himself it would only be a few sips. In addition, he would continue to make a conscious effort to keep himself clean and alert during the long days.
One day, he pulled his coin bag from beneath the mattress to find less than a pound remaining. Within days, it was spent and Mr. Lomston at the liquor store refused to give him credit.
For three nights, he tossed and turned, desperately craving both physical and emotional relief. Pain wracked his entire being and he could think of little else but his need for a drink.
On the fourth night, soon after midnight, he felt a hand on his forehead.
“Tillie,” he murmured, opening his eyes.
But it was not Tillie. An exotic woman with glossy, black hair flowing to her waist leaned over him. Her almond-shaped eyes filled with compassion.
“Please,” she whispered.
Jeremiah closed his eyes. When he opened them, she was gone. He shook his head, trying to restore sense to his mind. He knew he was at the crossroads of his life. One way or another, he had to get through this night. If only he could sleep.
Rain needled his skin and lightning lit the sky as he trudged into town. He reached Lomston’s Liquor Store by the hazy light of a watery moon. The street was deserted and the windows above the store were dark. He crept around the back, relieved to find the lock on the door easy to force.
With no light to guide him, he made his way to the front of the shop where the whisky jars were stacked behind the counter. He felt along the shelves until his fingers found the familiar shape. With trembling fingers, he pulled the cork lid from a jar. The whisky burned his throat but he sighed with satisfaction as its soothing warmth flowed through his body. He replaced the lid and grabbed three more jars from the shelf, clasping them to his chest.
Light suddenly flooded the store and he turned to see Lomston in his night attire coming down the stairs. His lantern candle dug shadows into his craggy face and his white hair sprouted out in tufts. Jeremiah moved back into the shadows, hoping Lomston had not recognised him.
“Bailey! What the dickens...?”
Jeremiah stumbled over a sack of onions and grabbed for the counter. The jars smashed onto the stone floor and he watched in disbelief as the puddle of whisky spread. Heart thudding, he turned to Lomston.
“Don’t hand me in,” he begged.
Lomston edged toward the end of the counter where Jeremiah knew he kept a whistle and an iron bar.
“Please! I’ll pay you back, I promise...”
Lomston reached under the counter.
Jeremiah lurched forward. He grabbed the iron bar and swung it into the side of Lomston’s head. Lomston grunted, dropping the lantern as he fell to the floor.
Jeremiah jumped back as the lantern rolled toward him. With a whoosh, the whisky at his feet ignited. Flames licked at his trousers. He jumped over Lomston, charging for the back door.
The rain had eased and Jeremiah had to splash through several puddles before his pants legs were reduced to a smolder. As he raced through the deserted streets, a part of his mind was ridiculously grateful that he had fortified himself with a slug of whisky. He ran until he reached the Hart’s front gate. Hands on his knees, coughing and gasping, he glanced back. And his thudding heart plunged.
In the distance, in the middle of town, flames shot high into the night sky. Lightning backlit the fiery display and candle glow began to light cottage windows. The clang of the fire cart bell shattered the peace of Rosetown.
“Oh, God, no! Please.”
Thunder boomed angrily but Jeremiah dared to hope as a heavy curtain of rain suddenly obscured his view.
Armed with a musket, Edwin charged out of the house. He took in Jeremiah’s appearance and the reek of whisky and wet smoke.
“What’s going on?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with you, man?”
“I think I killed him,” Jeremiah gasped. “It was an accident! Oh God, what will I do? They’ll hang me! It was an accident – please believe me.”
“What’s happened, Bailey? Tell me! Now!”
Maggie, hastily tying her robe, appeared in time to hear most of Jeremiah’s desperate explanation.
“What’ll I do?” Jeremiah sobbed.
Edwin raised his musket to heart level. “You’ll get into the shed, that’s what you’ll do. Maggie, get a length of rope.”
“No! Please! If you turn me in, I’m done for. What’ll happen to my boy? Please help me! Lomston may’ve got out all right and... and I’ll pay for the fire damage – even if it takes the rest of my life!”
Maggie clutched the sleeve of Edwin’s robe. “Let him make a run for it, Edwin. Abel can stay with us.”
Edwin turned his glare on his wife. “I’m not having convict blood in this house. Never again, do you hear me?”
Jeremiah ran past them, half expecting a burst of grapeshot to explode in his back before he reached the front door. He tore through the house to Molly’s room, the Harts close on his heels. The three of them burst into the bedroom.
“Take him and go!” Edwin thundered.
“Mowwy come, too,” Abel cried, as his father snatched him from the bed.
Molly’s torment filled their heads, growing fainter as they fled across the wheat field. With Abel on his back, Jeremiah skirted the southern edge of Rosetown. He ran through the rain, through fields and paddocks, not slowing until they entered dense bush land.
They were all alone. Even the moon had deserted them.