On The Wallaby
The year was 1868 and the cold of the morning was still enveloped in the damp fog of the night. Sunrise was still an hour hence while the Australian bush was cloaked in silence. Yet James Ford was awake, conscious only of the slow rhythm of breathing coming from his wife and baby daughters. Slowly he unwound himself from the blankets and crept from beneath the cart which served as a shelter for the night, careful not to disturb the warm bundle of blankets that served as a cocoon for his young family.
By starlight, James pulled on his boots and made his way to the remnants of the nights’ fire fanning the few remaining embers coaching them to light. He treasured this time, the time before dawn. He had made camp away from the track, the Wallaby Track as it was known, to afford a modicum of privacy and quiet so that Elizabeth could feed the baby girls.
James had learnt as he set out from Port Melbourne he would be following a series of well-known tracks made by the ‘new chum’ miners as they walked to Ballarat and Bendigo and it would be hard work moving along the series of tracks leading to the goldfields. While James had a cart and horse to carry his box of tools and his family, even so, it was tough going. ‘You’re on the Wallaby now’ was the usual response to any comment made about the rigours of the track.
The track was busy with any number of travellers negotiating their route to the goldfield. Most were single men with a flour bag containing their few possessions thrown over a shoulder while they carried the inevitable blacken billy in one hand and a canvas water bag in the other. They were good natured, filled with hope and tales of a new ‘find’ or someone ‘striking it rich’. But there were stories too, along with the track, of deaths and misadventure, of snake bites, of broken axels and stalled wagons. Aye, thought James, it is tough but New Zealand had honed his spirt and all this ‘talk’ served was to spur him on.
But at this hour there were no creaking carts, no bullocky calling his term to order, no chatter, no talk. The track had laid most to slumber except for the odd few who were now awaiting the predictable cacophony of sounds that would herald another busy day on the Track.
The twigs spluttered and caught alight. The damp smell of eucalyptus mingled with the lazy smoke as it arose from the embers. Positioning the billy so as to allow the small flames to do their best James waited, waited for the noisy cackling of kookaburras which would give warning that there was work yet to done and miles to cover before he reached his destination, Ballarat.
Work? James was confident that he would have no problem finding suitable work when the family finally reached Ballarat. In fact, two days on the track confirmed much of what he had been told and allayed much of his fears. Besides, the native trees were tall and straight and hard, they would make excellent timber. His trade as a wright would be in much demand and his saws, axes, adzes, jacks, hammers and planes would be in his skilled hands once more.
The ‘new chums’ passed by as did the cloud of flies that were part of the track as anything else. Then there were the wagons, laden with building equipment, furniture and mining rigs. And as each day passed the talk on the track circulated around a ‘better camp’ site, where water was obtainable, for a fee of course, and warning of the next creek crossing, which, to James relief, were mostly dry.
Then there were travellers heading south who looked bored, ‘down on their luck’, but most, James suspected, were government type people who did not share the happy exuberance of the northern travellers. From one such man riding a bay gelding wearing a striped suit covered in dust James learnt that the colonial office in Melbourne was going to have ‘make some laws’ regarding gambling and liquor. Not that James was interested in these activities but the news contributed to what he had learnt, that there would be no lack of opportunity ahead. Then, once, he was passed by a wagon heading back down the track surround by a troop of heavily armed police. The police could only mean that the wagon carried gold as James’ trained eye noted the creak and sway of the wagon as the driver negated his charges over the uneven and broken earth. Heavy in gold and for James gold meant hard currency.
After his experience in New Zealand James was optimistic but cautious. James had met Robert Muir when he engaged his skills as a wright building roads and bridges on the southern island. But after two years his father in law had been declared fraudulent insolvent perhaps because the colonial office was more than fitful in paying their government contracts. Or perhaps the contract work had ended due to the felonious intent of those whom he had trusted. Whatever the reasons James had left Waikouaiti and the aftermath of uncompleted roads and bridges, of burning farmhouses and police warrants. Yet, despite these unfortunate events James did learn about building and he did get to marry Robert’s daughter, Elizabeth. He realised now that he was reluctant in considering any future government contract work. The presence of gold indicated the prosperity of what lay ahead and meant that he could forgo chancy contracts, bills and lading, or promissory notes.
A billy of boiling water first thing in the morning was something he knew bought a smile to Elizabeth’s face. But for James, it was all so new, a rash newness, and it was newness with which he was now wrestling. Yet his whole life had been something of a wrestle, ‘doing it tough’ in the language of the track. Growing up in Millport, then his apprenticeship in Kilmarnock followed by a four months voyage to Otago and misadventure. He had worked his way north and then saved for a passage to Melbourne. But he did have a fine wife and two healthy daughters and a cart carrying his previous chest of tools. Now he had to negotiate his family’s passage along a rough track bashed out of the bush making for a destination that had some ten years earlier been know for the Eureka Stockade, the place where miners and authority fought and died. He was anxious, tense even. His apprehension, James realised, stretched beyond Waikouaiti and the track, back to Millport.
It had been in 1844, James Ford’s tenth birthday, always a big occasion for the growing youth of Millport, that he learnt of his father, Samuel Ford. Tenth birthday or no, while others, including his mother, fussed over him, James had other thoughts preoccupied his mind. He had reached double figures and it was time to confront the missing pages in his past.
His father, Samuel, had died in 1836 just shy of James’ second birthday. He had never known his father other than a vague shadowy figure that existed largely at the margins of his mind. His mother had referred to his father from time to time but such references only cemented the idea that he was not being told the whole story. His older brothers and sister referred to him now and then but they knew little more than James. He had heard rumours of course and the small island of Cumbrae, surrounded by the Firth of Clyde, was alive with rumours. No, he had wanted more than rumour and at the age of ten, he was old enough to confront the truth.
The man who would have known would have been his Grandfather, Robert Wright, his mother’s father, one-time coxswain of the Royal George revenue cutter. Robert, more frequently known as Old Bob, had the youth of Millport hang on every word of his endless stories of the sea, of smugglers and the activities of the Royal George revenue cutter. The old man had overhanging bushy eyebrows from under which peered two arresting eyes that fixed and captured his listeners as he yarned away many an hour. But it was not the yarns, exciting as they were, that was of concern for James at the age of ten. What he wanted to know was the story of his father, Samuel Ford, the real story. And on this tenth birthday, James felt it time to fill in the gaps that his father had left behind.
Sadly, his grandfather was no longer alive having died not two months back so that avenue of investigation was closed. James had considered asking his mother but she may not have known the full story anyway. Women, James having already formed the opinion, seldom knew all that transpired between men, and even if she did know she probably wouldn’t tell him anyway. But there was someone, nearing his eighties now and living on a pension, who may well know the story and it was to this particular tenement he found himself making.
Thomas Hunter lived on Stuart Street, just along from where the Ford family lived. Thomas had served on the revenue cutter for most of his life and surely knew something of his father’s life. But, unlike his outgoing grandfather, Robert Wright, ole man Hunter kept to himself mainly but was always ready with a quick smile. He rarely spoke of his days on the Royal George yet would join in the throng of crew and labourers in the Royal George Inn on Saturday nights. It was not that he was unfriendly, just that he was different to his grandfather against whom James measured everyone else. Yet the ole man’s silence seemed to add a dimension that spoke of trust, that he knew things of which he would not speak, and it was this aspect that drew James towards the old mans front door
As he rapped on the door, shut tight against the winter winds, a thousand thoughts raced through James’ mind. What could the old man know and would he be likely to tell of that knowledge? What if he wont tell anyway? It was not that James was particular afraid, just, wondering. Millport was a close-knit community where none unnecessarily spoke ill of another. It was with these thoughts darting about in his head when he was aware of the door had opened.
It was the old man who broke the brief silence.
‘Well now, if it’s not Mr James Ford. Now, what could you be a-wanting? Come in, come in’.
James stepped inside and was guided down the hallway by the shuffling of the old man’s feet that led into the warm kitchen beyond. Here the old man’s tidiness was apparent. The kitchen was tidy and had a well and often used feel about it. All shipshape James had thought.
‘Now sit yer’self down’. James obediently sat on the chair that was obviously the lesser used while the old man spoke on.
‘A cup of tea methinks might be in order’. As the old man busied himself with tea making from the constant boiling kettle, James suddenly found himself tongue tired. Sensing his silence the old man continued over his shoulder, ‘Would I be right in thinking it’s your tenth birthday Mr Ford?’
James warmed with the use of the word Mister.
‘Aye Sir, Mr Hunter.’
‘Well, my congratulations. Double figures eh? A milestone in anyone’s life’.
There was a pause as the old man look at hard James. But there was that smile again.
‘Well now, let me guess, this not being exactly a social visit. You being ten year old yer might be wanting to ask about your father methinks’.
How did he know that?
‘Aye Sir, Mr Hunter.’ James paused for a bit. ‘It’s just that the others have fathers but not me. And I hear things’. He trailed off not knowing what to say next.
Studiously concentrating on pouring the tea the Ol’ Man appeared not to have heard. James felt anxious, waiting, but too frightened to say anything that might jeopardise a response. Yet the silence lingered. Then slowly the Old Man raised his eyes from tea pouring and looked intently at James.
‘James, you will learn eventually. You have to understand that there are things better left unsaid. There are some things men just don’t talk about’.
James felt crushed and bit his lip focusing on the untouched tea in front of him in an effort to hide his disappointment. He controlled an urge to turn and bolt out of the house but when he looked up he sensed there was something more to come.
‘You are growing up James and yer father would have been proud of you. It’s not that there is anything to be ashamed of in yer father’s past. It just that men don’t need to unnecessarily tread over past events’.
The Ol’ Man paused and turned slightly reaching into a cupboard bringing out a bottle; whisky. Without any more to do, he pulled the cork with his teeth and before James could say anything added a splash of the liquor to James’ tea before adding a dash to his own.
‘There now. You are well on the way to being a man and if you don’t tell yer mother neither will I’.
Coaxed into the conspiracy James could not help but smile.
The Ol’ Man raised his cup and winked at James, ‘Slanj-uh James, an’ it’ll keep the cold at bay’. James followed and sipped the tea which had a not unpleasant taste.
‘And call me Thomas; we being men an all’.
‘Aye Sir. Ah, Mr Thomas, thank you’.
The Ol Man set his gaze on James.
‘I’ll tell you what I know of your father but you cannot go around telling all of Millport now. This is between me and thee, and yer father’.
James nodded in consent, ‘How did father come to Millport? He has no family here’.
‘Well now, where to begin? Aye. Ah, Yes. It would be around the time of yer birth methinks. Let’s start there, the day you were born. That I remember.’
And so the story unravelled, slowly and methodically. As the threads knitted together James followed the pictures painted by the old man’s story. Somewhere in that room, as dusk gathered outside, James realised he had quickly grown up.
To be continued ..
Copyright John Ford 2018