Authors: Johanna Nicholls
To Brian, Nicholas, Niki, Eadie and Donna
In memory of my parents, Fred and Dorothy Parsons, and my friend Anne Goldie Cousland
Australian history is almost always picturesque. Australian history does not read like history â it is full of surprises and adventure, incongruities and incredibilities â but they are all true, they all happened.
January 1837 â May 1838
Attempt the end and never stand to doubt
Nothing's so hard but search will find it out.
Jakob Andersen's eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun as he rode along the deserted road on the final leg of the journey home. The landscape around him was virtually all sky, a blue so dominant it drained what little colour the drought had left in the parched grassland.
Hungry for the sight of her, Jake's heart beat faster as haunting images played before his eyes â¦ Jenny dancing towards him â¦ the way she stood like a child on the footstool to tie his neckerchief â¦ the glow of firelight rippling over her back as she bathed in the tub by the fire â¦ her teasing smile when she blew out their bedside candle â¦ her exquisite body like a naked goddess in the darkness â¦
The memory of her was so alive Jake could smell her French perfume, a luxury that to Jenny was more important than daily bread.
He counted off the months, weeks and days since his departure on the cattle drove south. Jenny never expected letters from him, aware that he shied off writing, embarrassed by his limited schooling. But Jenny knew he belonged to her body and soul. For Jake the longer the drove the more vivid his memories were. What a comfort it would be to carry a miniature portrait in his pocket. He promised himself that one day âwhen his boat came in' he'd pay an artist to paint her.
Jake felt a rush of pleasure as he relived the hour of his departure. Dawn. He had lingered at their bedroom door, his throat tight at the sight of Jenny, her arms above her head, the curve of her breasts pressing against the lacy film of her nightgown. Her golden hair was strewn across the pillow â like a mermaid floating under water.
Through the veil of her hair Jenny had playfully uttered the words of their ritual farewell. âWill you love me forever and ever, Jakey?'
His answer was always serious. Now as he rode he repeated it under his breath. âI'll love you even longer, Jenny.'
Jake knew if he had stopped long enough to kiss her he'd never have left. There was no choice. Ogden's droving job was an opportunity he couldn't afford to knock back. Jake had a flash of that moment before he left home.
At the foot of the stairs he had spun around at the sound of a soft whisper.
Little Pearl was standing barefoot in her nightgown at the top of the stairs, her short bandy legs planted wide. Fair hair framed a smile of pure sunshine as she stretched out her arms and took a step forward. Jake had bolted up the stairs just in time to prevent her falling.
âYou'll have to wait until you're a big girl before you take the stairs, Princess.'
He had kissed the crown of her head as her puppy Flash licked her face. Pearl had reached up in the way she often did, gently tucking a lock of Jake's long hair behind his ears. He had promised to bring her home a new dolly then he'd led her back to her attic bedroom â¦
Jake glanced at his saddlebag, imagining the cries of delight that would greet his swag of presents for his girls. He even had one for Jenny's mother.
He frowned at the thought of Mrs Troy.
It'd take more than a box of sugar plums to sweeten
The old battleaxe never lets me forget Jenny married beneath her â because of my âdouble convict taint' from Mam and Pa. But she's done me a favour guarding my girls so butter won't melt in my mouth.
As Jake kept to the Sydney Road, he wondered how Jenny's world would have blossomed during his absence. Her beloved cottage garden must now be alive with the beds of English flowers he'd planted to remind her of her childhood in Devon. He imagined how Pearl would be playing with Flash, her eye on the front gate waiting to catch sight of him.
Throughout the drove Jake had battened down his anxiety, assuring himself he had done everything to ensure his girls' safety. He had taught Jenny how to use the tiny muff pistol in an emergency. He could count on Wally, his Aboriginal mate since childhood, to work the farm. His mother-in-law would be Jenny's shadow.
Jake's reward for the long, lonely months was the promissory note he had stashed inside the sole of his boot for safety. He patted his vest pocket to check that the handful of coins and old watch chain were ready to hand over to any bushranger who bailed him up.
He ruffled the shaggy mane of the stallion he had named after his childhood hero Lord Nelson.
âMoney, Horatio. Makes the world go round, eh? We did it hard last year, but things are going to look up in 1837! This year we'll make our fortune, just watch!'
Spoken out loud the words sounded hollow. Although he was almost twenty-three Jake had not yet found the work he was best cut out to do. What excited him most was collecting the winner's purse after a bare-knuckle fight, but between bouts he was forced to sustain his few-acres farm with whatever work was available.
The bloody bank of New South Wales holds the mortgage on everything I own â except my horse. But what the hell. With Jenny beside me I'm ready to take on the world.
He scratched at the rough ginger beard he had grown during the months of droving. He'd be sure to shave it off before he saw Jenny. On previous returns when he had been hungry to kiss her, she had shied away. Told him to clean himself up before he dared sit at her table. Jake gave a wry grin at the memory.
Jesus, I'm always hoping to head her off to bed!
Now, not for the first time, he cringed over his dilemma. He could tell Horatio the words no man would ever hear.
âAs a bachelor I could make the girls at the Red Brumby catch fire. Trouble is good women are different â¦ I can go the distance with any
man in a fight but with her I fizzle out like a damp squib on Guy Fawkes night.'
He told himself Jenny knew he loved every god-damned inch of her, but the thought was rough comfort. His performance the night before he'd left still rankled. He'd wanted to leave her with a special memory that would sustain them both through the months apart; to give her that look of dreamy contentment he had given other women. He had never yet seen that look on Jenny's face.
Why was his love for Jenny such a problem when he had so much of it to give?
Jake anchored his wide-awake hat, left the Sydney Road behind him and galloped Horatio in the direction of home. The wind whipped his red-gold hair. Long hair was the one thing he refused to change to please Jenny. It was the badge of identity flaunted by native-born lads in contrast with the shaven heads of the convict population and the short military cut favoured by the Sterling who boasted they were Englishmen. No man would ever take Jake Andersen for anything but a Currency Lad.
As he rode through the bush Jake's eyes read the landscape like a map.
âThose bloody Whitehall blokes think they run the world from the other side of the globe, Horatio, but they can fly all the Union Jacks they like and claim New South Wales is British land. Not to me it ain't. She's
At Feagan's General Store in the seedy village of Bolthole Valley, Jake stopped to replenish his tobacco pouch. As usual the young storekeeper Matthew Feagan was busy spouting the latest news on the local grapevine. He seldom drew breath as he weighed dry goods on the scales and gave customers change.
âThat George Hobson's stirred up a hornet's nest with his plans for Ironbark Farm. It's all the doing of his partner. That Hebrew lawyer is Bloom by name and blooming weird if you ask me. Full of foreign ideas
â like his way to kill sheep quick smart so they don't feel no pain! A schoolhouse for Ironbark farmers' young 'uns. And would you believe it? Bloom wants to build new cabins to give Hobson's assigned felons their privacy!'
Feagan dropped his voice in confidence to Jake. âYou know what them Germans are like. Think they can run the world better than us Brits.'
âHey! I'm Currency, mate,' Jake said automatically.
Feagan added tolerantly, âWell, that's the next best thing.' He handed the tobacco supplies to Jake and gave him an ingratiating smile. âShould I be putting my money on you again?'
Jake halted in the doorway. âWhat do you mean?'
âDon't tell me you haven't heard? The biggest purse ever offered in the colony!'
âA prize fight?
Outside the store Jake mentally tossed a coin. He decided to take a quick detour to Tagalong to call in on his mate Mac Mackie. He couldn't pass up the chance to make real money. Jake liked the sound of the odds. Winner take all.
âYou deserve a drink, Horatio. And I wouldn't say no to an Albion Ale.'
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
Jake took the turn-off road through Ironbark to slice a few miles from the cross-country route. The small seasoned chapel on the hill overlooked a cluster of few-acres farms where the paddocks showed signs of the drought and the sheep looked in need of a good feed. These settlers' huts had been standing long enough for their ironbark slabs to weather to a parched grey, but Jake knew the timber would be tough enough to outlive the owners.
In the distance the original property, George Hobson's Ironbark Farm, stretched out below the horizon. The homestead at its heart was shouldered by whitewashed farm buildings and convict cabins. To Jake
the contrast between Ironbark Farm and the settlers' farms was not surprising. Green and prosperous-looking, Hobson's large estate was fed by a network of creeks. No evidence was in sight of Feagan's predicted âweird changes'.
Riding through the ironbark forest south of the village, Jake finally broke clear of it when Tagalong was in sight. He knew the rickety bush hamlet had been spawned almost overnight by a ragbag collection of Irish-Catholic ticket-of-leave men and emancipists. It was so new it wasn't yet on any map but being sprawled around the junction of four tracks it was well positioned to draw a good crowd from all points of the compass. For mass or a prize fight.
Jake was chuffed by the sight of a poster fixed to a tree. It showed a drawing of a beefy pugilist with a Union Jack tattooed on his chest. Slowly Jake managed to read it. An English bare-knuckle champion, Bulldog Kane, was touring the colony, offering a rich purse to the first man who could beat him. None had yet knocked him to the ground. The date for this Tagalong challenge match was set for the first Sunday in the coming month.
Jake rode towards Tagalong's half-built church â its stone walls open to the sky in a bare paddock, like a Catholic oasis in the surrounding Protestant landscape.
He recognised the shaggy-bearded head peering through a space reserved for a future stained-glass window. Mac Mackie gave him a broad grin and slipped out of the church while the collection plate was doing the rounds.