The percussive thud of an axe cleaving through wood punctuated the otherwise idyllic summer quietness of the Kelly selection. As Dan, a slim and awkward boy of thirteen, chopped firewood for his mother, his sister Kate brought him a cup of water. Kate herself was only eleven and was already considered by many to be “the pretty one” of the Kelly girls; a fact her mother was keenly aware of. Dan’s oversized hands dwarfed the cup compared to the dainty mitts of his sister. He was like a puppy that hadn’t yet grown into its limbs.
“I’m tired of doing all the hard jobs around here,” Dan whined, “it’s only because bloody Ned and Jim got themselves locked up that I’m stuck here chopping wood and mending fences.”
“But you’re doing a good job. Aren’t you happy to help ma?” Kate asked.
“I’d be happier if she showed a bit of gratitude for once,” Dan replied, scratching at a pimple on his nose.
“Well, I am thankful that you have chopped up the wood for us,” Kate said sweetly. Dan’s angsty teenage scowl dissipated. No matter how grumpy he was, Kate somehow managed to snap him out of his funk.
Their sister Maggie had been married only a couple of months, which meant that Kate, as the eldest of the girls left behind, had to start growing up very quickly. Likewise, with his brothers in gaol Dan was now the man of the house and the responsibility of keeping the harder chores under control fell to him. It had been a rough trot the past few years but the Kellys were doing all they could to survive.
Meanwhile, little Grace, the youngest of the siblings, was engaged in chasing the dog around when it started barking at the fence. Turning towards the focus of the dog’s attention she spotted a strange man by the gate who waved once he caught her eye. He was accompanied by a black arabian horse and appeared to be quite young. Grace walked to the fence unafraid of this young man with plump lips, Roman nose and dark eyes. She was certain he wasn’t a policeman for he wasn’t wearing a blue jacket or a leather shako, and he was riding too fine a horse.
“How do you do, sweetheart,” the stranger said.
“What’s your name?” Grace asked.
“My name is George. Is your mother home?”
Grace nodded and promptly ran off to the homestead. Within moments she reemerged with Ellen, who wiped her hands clean on her apron. Grace pointed to the man at the fence and led her mother to him.
“Ma’am, I’m George King,” the stranger said, extending his thick-knuckled hand over the rail. Ellen accepted and shook it.
“I’m Ellen Kelly. What can I do for you, Mr. King?”
George took a moment to run his gaze over Ellen’s features, noting her broad cheeks and sad eyes. Her lips pursed as she waited for a response.
“Well, I’m passing through on my way to the goldfields and needed a place to rest my head. I ran into your brother James who said that you take in travellers for a fee,” said George.
“In these times a woman will do what she must, Mr. King, and I’ve never been one to turn a man away from my door when he was in need,” Ellen replied.
“That sounds good to me, ma’am. Name your price and I’m more than happy to cover the cost.”
Ellen scrutinised the young man with the peculiar accent. She liked what she saw.
“Tell you what, Mr. King – come and put your horse in the paddock and we can work out the rate in the house.”
“That’s an unusual accent, Mr. King, where do you hail from?” Ellen asked.
“I’m Californian, ma’am. I grew up in the heat of the big gold rush. People coming from all walks of life to seek their fortune. Not just white folk either. We got Orientals up to our eyeballs, like you have over at Beechworth. My mama used to say she couldn’t tell what she was meant to lock up faster – her daughter or her dog,” George laughed with a sneer, “I’ll tell you, the gold fields were the place to be. The richest person in the town I grew up in ran the local brothel, well, one of them. A brothel! Can you imagine that!”
Grace was perplexed, “What’s a broffel?”
“Never you mind, girl. Finish off them ‘taters,” replied Ellen.
After the plates had been cleared away, Ellen told the children to get ready for bed.
“It’s only early,” Dan complained.
“Ah, so it is,” replied Ellen dismissively.
“Well, why do we have to get ready now?” Dan persisted. Ellen shot him a death stare.
“Daniel Kelly, while you live under my roof you do as I say and don’t cause a fuss. Go and get ready for bed,” Ellen said with perhaps more venom than was necessary. Dan knew not to press the point unless he wanted a whack.
As Kate and Dan sat up in their beds, Grace was fast asleep in hers. There was only a sheet of canvas that separated the children’s beds from the rest of the house. Dan and Kate listened to their mother giggling to whatever the Californian had to say. Dan scowled.
“I don’t like him,” Dan whispered.
“I don’t like him either,” said Kate.
“I bet he’s not even from California. He’s probably just another blowhard like Bill Frost.”
“I didn’t like Bill Frost,” said Kate, “he always smelled of turpentine and he was mean. Do you think Mr. King is mean too?”
“I dunno. He might be. You know the sort that ma gets lodging here.”
Kate shushed her brother and cocked her ear; the talking had stopped. The siblings wondered if they had been overheard but then they heard the unmistakable sound of kissing and a bottle being knocked over. There was more giggling that followed the adults to Ellen’s bed.
“Are they going to sleep?” Kate asked. Dan shook his head. “Then what are they doing?”
“You don’t want to know,” Dan replied.
It was yet another balmy summer morning when Dan was up early to get cracking on mending the paddock fence. He had slept less than usual, having been kept awake by the amorous activity from his mother’s bed.
They had bought a new fence rail from their neighbour Brickey Williamson and now Dan was tasked with slotting it into the posts. He carried the rail across the selection, straining under the awkward weight and size. He removed the old, rotten rail and began lining the new one up with the notches. As he worked, George King emerged from the house. He swaggered to a bush on the edge of the fence and flopped out his penis. It was an awful red veiny thing but he seemed proud of it from his smirk as he began to urinate on the bush. Dan did his best to avoid looking.
“It’s just a cock, boy, don’t be frightened,” George said.
“We do have a privy, you know,” Dan responded as he lifted the rail into position.
“Yeah, I know, but it likes to get fresh air at least once a day,” George chuckled, “keeps it healthy.”
“Seems to me it gets aired out plenty,” Dan said.
“Oh, you heard that, huh? Well, I can’t say I blame you for being touchy. I’d be mad at whoever was screwing my ma, if I ever found out who he was,” George replied as he shook off the last few drops of urine from his member and tucked it away. As he walked past Dan he clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I’ll try and be quieter next time, alright,” George winked.
That night saw a repeat of much of the previous night’s sequence of events. Dan and Kate remained awake as the summer heat coalesced into a chilly night.
“Danny, can I hop into bed with you? I’m cold,” asked Kate.
“Why don’t you get into bed with Grace? She’s smaller,” said Dan. Kate looked over to Grace who was curled up with a wooden doll, fast asleep.
“Please,” Kate said, giving Dan her sweetest expression. With a grumble, Dan lifted his blanket and made space for his sister behind him. Kate snuggled next to Dan and threw her arm over him, stealing his warmth.
“Do you think they’ll do it again tonight?” Kate asked.
“He seemed to think so,” replied Dan.
“Do you think he hurts ma when he does that? It sounds like she’s hurting.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Kate remained quiet and buried her face into Dan’s back.
“I miss Maggie,” Kate said after a long pause.
“I know,” replied Dan, “but she has a husband to look after now.”
“I miss Annie too,” said Kate. Dan did not reply, he merely sighed and remained quiet as his thoughts focused on his eldest sister, recently deceased due to complications of childbirth. Ellen had cared for the fragile infant but she soon succumbed to illness too and joined her mother. Mother and daughter were buried together on the property and Ellen could not bear to even look in the direction of the graves. Dan seemed to have taken it particularly hard. Whenever anyone would mention Annie he would go quiet for what many considered an unusually long time. The family was now the smallest it had been in a very long time; just Ellen and three children.
Dan was shaken out of his gloom by the sound of the steel springs in Ellen’s bed creaking and her gasps and moans as George did his thing. Dan couldn’t help but think back to the sight of the Californian that morning, staring proudly at his member as he watered the grass. Something about how dark the skin was compared to the rest of him perturbed Dan. Part of him wondered if that was how it was supposed to look. His natural adolescent insecurity began to bubble up and he fidgeted.
He became aware of Kate holding him tighter as Ellen’s exclamations became louder and sharper. Suddenly they heard George groan and the noises stopped.
“Are they finished?” Kate asked.
“I hope so. It was quick this time at least.”
Kate relaxed and the pair eventually drifted off to an uneasy slumber.
Morning came around and Dan was awake early. Gently he got up so as not to disturb Kate, then got dressed. The only clothes he had were hand-me-downs from Jim, which were in turn hand-me-downs from Ned. They were too big and falling apart. His trousers were held up with a piece of rope and his shirt was riddled with holes that had been stitched shut. He put on his boots and tied a piece of twine around the toe of the left one, the sole of which had become separated from the leather upper. He walked outside and found George King dressed in only his Long Johns, smoking cheap tobacco from a ceramic pipe with a lion’s head stamped onto the bowl. His body was sinewy and pale, his crotch bulged between spindly legs. Dan wondered if he had ever done a day’s manual labour.
“Why don’t you get dressed, Mr. King?” Dan asked.
“If what you’re wearing passes for being dressed I think I’m alright as I am,” George quipped. Dan scowled and went about his business, leaving the skinny visitor to his smoking.
Later in the morning as Dan went about his chores and King attended to his horse, Kate helped her mother in the kitchen making bread. Ellen was an old hand and scattered flour across the wooden board like chicken feed before throwing the dough down without a thought. Kate did her best to keep up with Ellen but she was distracted.
“What’s the matter, girl? You’re supposed to knead the dough. Put some weight into it,” said Ellen.
“Ma,” said Kate, “I heard you and Mr. King last night.”
Ellen stopped and gave Kate a sidelong glance.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Ellen.
“Well, you know. In bed.”
Ellen resumed her kneading, “And what of it?”
“Well,” said Kate, stalling, “it’s just that… Well, Dan and I… Um…”
“Out with it, girl,” barked Ellen.
“Were you making a baby like with Bill Frost?” Kate asked, embarrassed.
Ellen sighed and wiped her hands on her apron before sitting Kate down with her at the table.
“When you get older you’ll discover that as much as men have needs, so too do we women.”
“Do you mean like having a man around to look after us?”
“Aye, that, but there’s more besides. I don’t think you’ll understand at your age, I didn’t, but in time you will. What happened with Bill Frost was something I never want to put us through again,” Ellen explained.
“So, you weren’t making a baby then?” Kate asked.
“If the good lord decides to bless us with another mouth to feed then I’m certain sure he will, whatever my intentions. What I do with George is between us, but there is something about men that will serve you to remember.”
“Those things between their legs can either make them your best friend or your worst enemy. You have to be careful. If you let a man into your bed you must know what kind of a man he is first.”
“What kind of a man is Mr. King?” Kate asked.
“Well,” said Ellen hesitantly, “he’s a strong, good looking young man, to be sure.”
“Is that why you let him go to bed with you?”
Ellen’s eyes widened, “You’re full of questions, girl. To be sure I could mistake you for a bloody trap!”
“I just don’t want you to be upset again.”
“Bill Frost was a poor excuse for a man. I misjudged him, that’s true, but have a little more faith in me now, girl.”
As the days became weeks, it became clear that George King was in no hurry to leave. The nightly frivolity in Ellen’s bed showed no signs of coming to a halt either, not that she seemed any worse for it. In fact it almost seemed as if her countenance had taken on a warmth and vitality that had previously been sapped out by the hardships of life on the selection and the loneliness of being a single mother on the frontier.
One afternoon as the family sat down to eat, George made a point of eating the bread slowly and methodically.
“Forgotten how to eat, my dear?” Ellen asked facetiously.
“I’m just taking time to appreciate the baking. I do enjoy good baking,” George replied.
“You know a bit about baking, do you?” Ellen said with a lascivious smirk.
“Well, I enjoy putting things in the oven. That’s the fun part. I’m yet to earn my stripes as a baker though.”
Ellen reached across and held George’s hand. “A good baker always sticks around to see the bread come out of the oven.”
This conversation was baffling to the children, but Dan soon noticed the way his mother rubbed her hand absentmindedly over her belly. He knew exactly what that meant. He shoved his plate aside and left the table. As he stormed outside everyone watched him with confusion.
It was Ellen who got up and found the teen furiously plunging the axe head into the stump he used for a chopping block. She was confused and infuriated by this sudden outburst of violent energy.
“What’s the meaning of this nonsense?” Ellen snapped. At first Dan ignored her, but a tight grip on his arm made sure he paid attention.
“The Californian has done a number on you just like that mongrel Frost,” Dan growled.
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ve got a baby in there,” Dan said, pointing to Ellen’s belly. She did not know what to say.
“Dan,” she began, “I wanted to tell you when the time was right.”
“And when was that going to be? When this one bolts too?”
Ellen’s eyes hardened and she unleashed a slap on Dan’s cheek that left his face stinging.
“Don’t you dare take that tone with me! George has made his intentions known to me and he’s going to be staying here from now on. You’ve no place to tell me how to live.”
“I don’t have any place anymore,” said Dan.
“What are you on about?”
“If he’s sticking around then I have no place here. It’s time for me to move on.”
There was a brief pause as Ellen registered her son’s words. Dan waited for a response, any response, to reassure him. None came. He threw down the axe and pushed past his mother. He stomped towards the house.
“Dan!” Ellen called after him, but he took no notice.
Dan went straight to the sleeping quarters and began to fill a gunny sack with his few paltry possessions – mainly the oversized, disintegrating clothes. Kate stood nearby watching him with a worried expression.
“What are you doing, Danny?”
“I’m leaving. Ma has made it clear that I’m not needed here anymore so I’m going.”
Kate was confused and demanded an explanation.
“I’ve told you enough,” Dan said. He shouldered the sack and headed off. He stomped off across the selection and through the gate. Once on the road he kept going in the direction of his sister Maggie’s place.
The sun was beginning to set when Dan arrived at the Skillion homestead. It was a very unimpressive structure. The slab hut was poorly maintained but the smoke wafting from the flue made it seem a bit more hospitable. Dan strolled up to the door past a stray chicken that had decided to explore the property. When he knocked the door felt flimsy and thin. He could almost see inside through a gap in the planks.
The door was opened by Maggie who was looking rather flushed and unkempt. She tried to smooth out her hair as she pulled the door open.
“What brings you here?”
Dan swatted a blowfly away as he shifted his feet nervously.
“I’ve left home but I need somewhere to stay overnight. I’ll be gone in the morning, don’t worry.”
Maggie looked out past Dan to see where his horse was. There was no horse.
“Did you walk here?”
“What are you doing, you silly boy? Get in so I can get you a drink,” Maggie scolded. Dan complied, sitting at the rickety dining table. The table wobbled as he rested his arm on it.
“He’s gone off to sort out a stump at the other side of the selection. He’s due in for tea,” said Maggie as she planted a cup of water on the tabletop for Dan.
“Reckon he’d know where I can pick up some work?”
“What kind of work?”
“I reckon I’d like to turn my hand to shearing,” said Dan, “reckon I’d be the ringer in no time.”
Maggie frowned and sat beside Dan.
“It’s Ma’s new fella. I can’t stand him and he’s gone and… Well…”
“Well, what?” Maggie asked.
Dan didn’t speak. Instead he mimed a big belly. Maggie understood immediately and sighed.
“Why does that mean you have to go off shearing?”
“I figure if the Californian is going to be throwing his weight around, he can do some of the bloody work around the place. I’m not doing what some Yankee blow-in tells me. Besides, the other lads reckon seasonal work is good money. Joe Ryan says he almost has enough for a new saddle and he only did a week.”
“Joe Ryan says a lot of things. What would you do with money?”
“Well, I wouldn’t give it to the Californian, that’s for sure. I’d send some home to Kate. I know I can trust her to look after it. I’d give some to you too. Help you out.”
“Is that all?”
“Well,” said Dan looking at his feet, “I reckon I’d like to get a pair of boots of my own.”
Maggie took a moment to take in the view of the rumpled, threadbare figure in front of her with his spotty face, greasy black hair and toes poking through his boots. It was clear he was in need of a good wash and a change of clothes.
Maggie got up and went to the sleeping quarters. After a moment of rummaging she emerged with an old coat and a pair of hobnail boots. She handed them to Dan.
“What are these?”
“They’re Bill’s but I think you need them more.”
“I can’t take Bill’s clothes!” Dan replied in shock.
“Please take them. Look, your coat only has one button left and the sleeves are frayed. Your boot is held together with twine. Take them please.”
Dan turned the offer down. He knew that Maggie and Bill were struggling too and he was too embarrassed to accept the charity.
Maggie gave Dan a hug.
“Stay for tonight. I’ll get you some tea and in the morning you might change your mind.”
The next morning Kate Kelly was awakened by the sound of chopping. Without even bothering to get dressed she wandered outside. She felt tired after crying herself to sleep the night before. Her naked feet patted over the hardened dirt. There at the chopping block stood Dan, swinging the axe expertly. Kate had no hesitation in running up and holding him as tight as she could.
“Oi,” said Dan.
“I was so scared you wouldn’t be coming back!” Kate said with her eyes watery.
“I wasn’t going to,” said Dan, “but Maggie convinced me to stay. Bill says he’s going to help find me some shearing work. Reckons he knows some blokes who run a sheep farm near Cooma where I can work in the next shearing season.”
“I don’t care,” said Kate, “I’m just happy you came back.”
Dan wrapped Kate in his arms and held her close. She nuzzled into his chest and he became aware that he was being watched.
Gazing towards the house he saw George King at the verandah smoking and scowling. The Californian began to walk towards him. He whispered to Kate to go inside. As she passed George King she shot Dan a worried look.
George wasn’t much taller than Dan, but it was enough that he could look down on him, which is exactly what he did with baleful eyes.
“Boy,” George said.
Dan did not reply. He merely stood defiantly.
“Do you have any idea what you put your mother through last night?”
Dan scoffed. George was not in the mood for Dan’s bad attitude and brought the back of his hand down across Dan’s face. It was enough to throw Dan off balance and almost fall face-first into the firewood.
“If I ever have to listen to your mother cry because of something you did again, I’ll shoot you.”
“What gives you the right –” Dan began but was cut off by another backhander, except this time George kept his first clenched. The blow ached.
“Shut your mouth.”
Dan rose to his full height and tried to downplay the pain in his face but the blow had made his eyes water. He spat at the ground.
George King was amused at such a display of bravado and chuckled in disbelief.
“You really are a glutton for punishment aren’t you?”
George unbuckled his belt and held it tightly in a clenched fist.
“I don’t remember much of my pappy, but what I do remember is his belt. D’you wanna know why I remember his belt?”
Without a word George lashed out and struck Dan’s face with the belt. The buckle sliced open the boy’s left cheek and he reeled.
“I remember the fuckin’ belt because he made me remember. I don’t care who your daddy was. I don’t care about the chip on your shoulder. You treat me with fuckin’ respect and when I knock you down you fuckin’ well stay down, got it?”
Dan held his hand to his cheek and refused to utter a word. He felt blood. George stood still, the belt hanging limp in his hand.
“You’ll go and apologise to your mother for the grief you put her through and you do as you’re damn well told. Spit at me again and I’ll rip the tongue out of your head and choke you to death with it.”
Dan sheepishly went into the house where he saw Kate behind the door sniffling. Ellen sat at the dining table with a stern expression.
“I see it didn’t take you long to come back after that display yesterday,” Ellen said.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” Dan replied. Blood was beginning to ooze through the cracks between his fingers.
“What’s wrong with your face?” Ellen asked. Dan said nothing. He merely removed his hand to show the deep gash in his cheek that was bleeding freely. Ellen got up to examine the wound and let out a frustrated huff.
A short trip into town to get Dan’s face stitched up later and the family were reunited around the dining table. Dan nudged his stew with his spoon and refused to look up. Grace shovelled food into her mouth like it was her last meal and seemed oblivious to the palpable tension in the room. Nobody spoke through the whole meal.
That night, as they cuddled together for comfort, Dan and Kate overheard their mother arguing with the Californian. To them it was unclear what was being said but there was one thing that they heard very distinctly.
“You lay a finger on my children again and I’ll make sure you have no fingers left. My Danny is a good boy and you have no place treating him like that.”
It seemed to Dan and Kate as if their mother had said that extra loud to make sure they heard it.
The following morning Dan went about his chores but no longer was it with a sullen temperament, rather he was proud to be doing his part. Every stacked log was a sign he was pulling his weight, proving he was as good as his mother had asserted. He happily pulled water from the creek in a pail and watered the crops, meagre as they were. He fed the horses and the dog without so much as a sigh. The Californian was here to stay, but so was Dan Kelly, and he was determined to show how indispensable he really was.