Dark clouds scurried across the sky as the two women sheltered under the large black umbrella. Their whispered conversation could be heard by all that stood nearby.
"Poor thing. What will she do now with no man to run the place?"
The woman steadied the umbrella and stared at the group standing at the head of the grave.
A boy stood slightly to one side as the girl clung to her mother's dress. The woman, bare headed, her long brown hair tied in a black ribbon, stared straight ahead. She held a baby in her arms, wrapped in a cotton shawl.
"Still, she's a young woman. There are plenty of men. . .."
"Yes, but with three children?" Her attention was drawn to a large sweating man talking to the widow.
"My condolences Mrs. Lambert."
Teresa Lambert cringed inwardly at the touch of his soft flabby hand.
"Thank you Mr. Swineton."
"If you get into any difficulties let me know, I'll give you a fair price for the land."
Teresa's dark eyes flashed. "Mr Swineton. In case you haven't heard, in this country women are not allowed to own property. It belongs to my son James. As he is not of legal age, I am his guardian until then. If you come back in eleven years, you can discuss it with him."
Handkerchiefs to their mouths the two women stared in horror at the outburst. Teresa ignored them.
People started to drift away as the grave-diggers patted down the earth. The woman nudged her friend. "There's a good prospect for her. Widowed, what, five years and their land next to each other."
"I don't think so. My Bert said when he went on that three day drinking binge when his wife died, he swore he'd never marry again."
Her friend's eyes wandered up and down his strong frame.
"Mr Thomson, thank you for coming."
"Are you taking any cattle into the markets next week?"
Teresa looked up into his blue eyes.
He knows. No sorry for the loss of your husband. He knows.
"Yes, I am."
"Well, if you want I can put them in with mine."
"Thank you for the offer but the men will have to get used to me in there."
"Yes, well if you need anything you know where I live."
"Thank you Mr Thomson."
A sudden squall of rain sent the two ladies scurrying for their carriage.
Teresa watched them struggling in the mud. "Don't worry ladies, I'll be in town next week to settle my husbands debts. You'll be able to buy several pairs of fancy boots!"
"She's just distraught, she doesn't know what she saying."
"Yes dear, get in and we'll go home and have a hot toddy."
"James, go and get some wood."
"Mummy, where's daddy?"
Burning in hell, I hope. "In heaven darling." She gathered her daughter into her arms.
James dropped a bundle of logs in front of the iron stove.
"Good boy. Hungry?"
He nodded, stepping to the side as she shoved the wood into the fire.
"Take the two dogs off the rope and go down and check the cattle. Sarah, look in on your sister, then you can help me with dinner."
As she skinned the rabbit James caught that morning, Teresa heard a noise coming from the bedroom. Wiping her hands on her apron she quietly opened the door. Sarah lay on the bed beside her sister crying.
"What's wrong my pet?"
She threw her arms around her mother. "Daddy's not coming back is he?"
You were his favourite. At least he didn't hit you.
"No darling, he's not."
"I'm going to miss him."
"I know you will. Now come out with me, you don't want to wake Jane do you?"
Sarah wiped her eyes and followed her mother out of the room.
Later that night, Teresa sat on the steps of the veranda. The sound of crickets filled the air as stars blinked in a moonless sky.
"Come here James and stop pacing up and down."
Listlessly he wandered over and sat beside her. She pulled him gently onto her lap, smoothing down his rusty coloured hair. "You haven't said a word all day, what's troubling you?"
He shook his head against her breast.
"Are you missing your father?"
The boy curled into a ball on his mother's lap. Again he shook his head.
Teresa's heart skipped his head. My God! How much have you held in, these short years.
A single tear rolled down her cheek as she rocked him in her arms.
"You won't leave me will you?"
She hugged him tight. "No, I'll never leave you, I promise."
"Morning missus. I see yonder orange trees will be bearing fruit this time next year."
"How did you get past the dogs, they never let strangers in."
Although his clothes were old, Teresa could see they were clean.
"Ahh, me and dogs are always friends, never had one bite me yet!" He grinned at her toothlessly. "Getting back to your orange trees. If you don't prune them you'll only get half a crop."
"I'm the man to do it. Had me a farm up in Queensland twenty year ago. Missus upped and died and I lost interest. Been on the road ever since."
"Oh, you're looking for a job. Sorry but I can't pay anybody."
"Just food three times a day and a place to put me head. You're wasting the land under the trees, you should be growing vegetables there."
"Yes, a Chinese man showed me how. I can grow lots of things!"
"If all you want is food and a bed, the job is yours. There's a room at the back of the hayshed."
"Thank you missus. They call me Jock. When do we start?"
"Tomorrow morning, we're taking cattle into the market."
She watched his retreating back for a moment. "Jock!"
"How come you didn't ask for the boss?"
He grinned, his pink gums showing. "I looked in the cemetery, saw the fresh grave and asked some questions."
"How old are you Jock."
"I'll be sixty one next birthday but I doubt I'll ever see it if you keep this pace up. The rate we're going we'll meet ourselves going into Parramatta."
"Sorry. In your sixty years you must have met a lot of crooks."
"I have. I remember the time. . .."
"Well the biggest crooks are the so called 'respectable' of that town!"
"Your husband was a drinking man."
Teresa gave him a sideways glance. "What makes you say that."
"It looked to me as if you were handing over the last of your money to the landlord of the Swallows Nest."
Teresa smiled. "You don't miss much do you. Never again will there be anything on tick, that, I promise."
I have enough supplies to last three months, then we'll see.
Two weeks later Teresa was feeding the chickens when she saw Harry Thomson riding in to the yard with another horse in tow.
"Good morning Mrs Lambert, is James around?"
"Mr Thomson - yes, he's in the shed - James!"
"Ah, James, I've come to ask a favour, with your mothers permission of course," he pointed to the horse standing quietly behind him, "This used to be my wife's horse. I call him Greystar because of his markings. As you can see he's getting fat from lack of work. Now if you rode him into Parramatta to school every day, he'd soon trim down. What do you say?"
"School? What school."
"Haven't you heard. They've opened a free school."
"James doesn't need school. I need him here."
"But he must learn how to read and write, Mrs Lambert."
"I can read and write!" James stroked the horse's head, admiring its stance.
"Oh - You have a very talented mother."
Teresa felt her face flush. "I've done the best I could with the few books we have."
"You need books? I have a library full of them. I'll bring some over this afternoon. I still think you should let James go to school. Besides, you have the old man helping you. By the way, why is he digging between the orange trees?"
"Growing vegetables. He says the trees will shelter them from the heat."
"Clever. I hope they will be for sale. Fresh vegetables would be nice for a change."
Teresa laughed "You'll have to ask him, he bought the seed on market day. He won't even tell me what he's growing."
"You got a good price for your cattle?"
"I'm satisfied." She pulled her hair back from her face and felt herself blush under his intense gaze.
"Good. Now I have a business proposition to make.
Harry climbed down from the saddle and stood beside her.
He's taller than I remember. "The farm is not for sale."
He laughed. "I know that. I want to buy the rocks in the lower paddock."
Teresa looked up at him. "The stony field? You can have the lot for free. I was going to clear it next year, nothing grows there because of them."
"Mrs Lambert - look, if we're going to talk business can I call you by your first name?"
She nodded. "Yes, you can but I don't want your charity."
"Charity? No, this is business. If I have them carted out from the Parramatta Quarry it will cost me two shillings and sixpence a cubic yard. If I give you one shilling a cubic yard and cart them myself do we have a deal?"
"What do you want them for?"
"I'm building a new house. I'll show you the plans tonight when I bring the books over. Can you let me know your decision then?"
"Yes - Harry, I promise."
"Thank you Teresa."
Teresa inhaled the smell of lilac as she ran her fingers over the smooth leather bound book. "Your wife must have loved reading."
They sat on the veranda looking out at a star filled night.
"No, unfortunately, she could not read but she loved to keep them smelling nice."
Teresa could hear the sadness in his voice. His face was in shadow from the low light coming from the kitchen.
"Did you love her. ...I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that."
He stared at her intently. "Yes I did. The last year of her life was very painful. What hurt the most was, there was nothing I could do for her."
She dropped her gaze to the book.
"Did you love him?"
Teresa hugged the book to her breast. "At first - but it changed."
"I know. I don't live that far away. I saw you working in the fields alone and. . . I heard, things at night."
"Yes, well it's over now. I'm sorry Harry but I must check on the children."
"And I must be away, big day tomorrow, carting stones." He mounted his horse. "Thank you for lovely evening."
"I like your new house, it will be the best house for miles."
"I think so too, goodnight Teresa."
"Would you. . . like to come over for dinner one night?"
"I would like that."
"Watch where your stepping, I've just put some seeds in!"
"Sorry Jock, I've brought you some food."
He took the billy can of tea and sat under a tree. Teresa looked at the lines of orange trees. "You seemed to have cut a lot off them."
Lowering the billy can from his mouth he grinned at her. "Be the best oranges you'll ever see missus. People will come for miles just to taste one!"
Jock looked up at her wistfully. "You remind me of my wife, God rest her soul. We were married under the orange blossoms. She was beautiful, the same as you." He grinned. "That's a fine young fella that's visiting you. You could do worse."
"Jock! you're making me blush."
He stood. "When I finish here, I'm going to burn a fire break around your place. This is going to be a bad summer for bush fires."
If those crickets don't shut up I'll go crazy. Teresa wiped the sweat from her brow. She poured the bucket of water into the trough and watched the chickens scramble for a drink.
"Can you smell it?" Jock stood in the shade of the veranda.
"Yes," she shaded her eyes and peered into the distance, "how far away do you think it is?"
"Eight, maybe ten miles."
The boy hurried from the house. "Yes mum?"
"Get on Greystar and go and warn Harry. .. Mr Thomson. There's a bushfire headed this way."
Flocks of birds flew overhead squawking in alarm. Ash floated down in spirals. An acrid smell filled the air. Teresa's heart thumped.
"I'll go and check the cattle." Jock spoke quietly behind her. "Don't worry, the firebreak will hold it back."
Thank you God for sending me Jock.
An orange glow filled the horizon as Teresa paced up and down the veranda. Dust and ash covered the roof of the house.
"How far Jock?"
"'Bout five miles. With a little luck the might change. Go to bed, if there's any change I'll wake you."
A thunder of hooves woke Teresa from a troubled sleep. Jock was listening to Harry who sat astride a sweating frightened horse.
"It's coming up the gully fast. The wind has changed and it's heading this way."
'Look son, you'd better get your cattle up here to the stony field, they'll be safe there."
Harry looked at Teresa.
"You don't have ask, get your men to drive them up, I'll open the gate."
He wheeled his horse and was at a gallop down the dirt track.
The boy stumbled out the door, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"You know what you have to do. Keep all the doors and windows closed. Wet sacks are over there if you have to use them. If, God forbid, the house should catch fire, get out. You know where to go. I'm going with Jock to check the firebreak."
The cattle, wild eyed with fear charged through the gate into the field, followed by Harry and two of his workers.
"I've sent the rest over to the Barton place, they need a hand! I'll leave these two here, I'm going back home."
"Take care, Harry!"
Teresa could feel the heat rising from the gully as the air thickened. Blue-black smoke turned day into night. She tied a scarf around her mouth trying to breathe clean air.
"That gully is acting like a chimney," Jock shouted close to her ear, "move back twenty yards and look out for sparks."
Flames shot skyward with a roar. A whirlwind of fire raced up the side of the gully and across the scrub at frightening speed.
"Look," one of the workers shouted. "It's heading for the bosses house!"
"Oh, my God, Harry!"
A strong hand held her back. "It's no good missus, you'd get burned to a cinder trying to get to him."
The ground sizzled as raindrops splashed to the ground. Teresa sat on the veranda holding a mug of tea. In the darkness she could see small spots of fires slowly dying.
"With God's help, I think we've beaten it, missus."
"Thanks to you and your firebreak, Jock." She stared into the gloom, "Others were not so lucky."
"The silly bugger should have listened. I told him to put in a firebreak."
"I know I should have Jock." A horse's head appeared in the circle of light.
"Harry. Are you okay? Oh, God I thought you were dead."
Jock held the horses head as Harry slid off. "The house?"
"Gone, but I managed to save these." He pulled down a sack from the saddle. The rope came undone. Books fell onto the ground.
"Books! All you could think of saving were books as the house burned around you!"
Harry grinned. "Well, you like to read and I paid a lot of money for them."
Teresa picked up one of the books and rubbed the dust off. "You can stay here while you build your place."
Harry shook his head, dust settled on his shoulders. "I can't do that, the neighbours would talk. A widow on her own."
Teresa looked flustered. "I mean you could stay in the shed with Jock. There's not much room. . .."
"Better if you got married!" Jock grinned.
"What!" They said in unison.
"I might be old, but I'm not blind. I can see the sparks between you."
"Is that a proposal Harry Thomson?"
Teresa smiled at Jock. "Only if I can get married under the orange blossoms."
"I'll make a garland for your hair, the same way I did for me missus."
© John W. Kelly