It's been a bit of a read but I hope you've been enjoying it.
Here goes ...
A long road home
The weeks following the storm passed in a whirl of activity. Never handy with tools, Katie nevertheless attempted to tack together some semblance of accommodation for the hens and rooster. The finished result was passable though would no doubt collapse like so many matchsticks in the first breeze.
January arrived and Katie pondered the sheep in the paddock. Their fleece was long, and of good quality and should fetch a decent price, if only she had the means to shear them. In her hand she held a faded and buckled postcard showing a sepia photograph of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The reverse side, in Walter’s excited handwriting, told how he and his new chums had visited the pyramids, bars and bazaars of Cairo.
And wait until you see what I have for you! A chunk of painted wood from King Tut’s coffin! The man in the shop assured me it was genuine – he even took me out the back to where he kept all his rare pieces.
“Oh Walter,” Katie sighed unhappily and stroked the rounded swell of her belly. “Having the great adventure...”
“G’day Missus!” The shout startled her and she whirled around to see two dusty, sun-browned men before her.
“Sorry, to give you a fright,” one said. He wasn’t a tall fellow, but he was strongly built and accustomed to labour, judging by the wiry forearms exposed below rolled-up sleeves. He came toward her with a touch to his hat and a pleasant smile. “Nick Hanrahan, Mrs...Mrs Blackwood, isn’t it?”
Katie nodded warily. “I don’t know you, Mr. Hanrahan. How do you know me?”
“Shearer, Missus.” He nodded toward his partner. “He’s Jim Casey. We were down this way last year. Sheared that mob out there,” he thumbed toward the sheep in the paddock. “Mr Blackwood around?”
Katie knew she couldn’t hide the fact she that was alone, however vulnerable it made her feel. And the sheep did need shearing. Drawing a breath she said, “No, Mr. Hanrahan. Mr Blackwood has joined the war in Europe.”
“Ah, that’s too bad, and you in the family way an’ all,” his sympathy seemed genuine. “We were six of us last year, others joined as well. Just me and Jim left now.”
“We woulda gone too,” Jim spoke for the first time. He stepped forward, eyes lecherously appraising. “But he’s deaf in one ear an’ I’ve got a dickie back.” He ignored his partner’s derisive snort and continued his assessment of the woman before him.
“Well,” Katie said, “I need shearers but I’ve no money. I can’t pay until the wool’s sold.”
Jim kicked at the dirt doubtfully, “Well, I – ”
“We’ll do it,” Nick interrupted. “Can’t see you managing otherwise. All we ask is bed and meals. Pay us later.”
“Thank you Mr. Hanrahan.” Katie pointed, “You can sleep in the barn over there. I’ll provide three meals a day.”
“Deal,” Nick said, and stuck out a hand.
The men presented themselves at the kitchen door early the next morning. Both had evidently bathed in the dam and were clean and freshly shaved. Scrubbed of road-dirt and sweat, Nick was about her own age, with pleasant features and startling blue eyes. Conversely, Jim was weathered and wore a miserable, down-turned expression. Both men were ravenous.
Katie served a breakfast of eggs, toasted damper, and tea. They returned empty plates and Nick offered a jaunty wink. “Been a while since I’ve eaten that well, Missus.”
“Yeah,” his mate agreed. “Decent cook an’ nice tits too!”
“Shut your filthy mouth!” Nick snapped. He shot Katie an apologetic look and gave Jim a shove. “C’mon. Let’s get to work.”
Katie watched them head toward the paddock. She didn’t like Jim. She didn’t like the way his eyes had followed her as he ate, and she certainly didn’t like his comment. Hopefully their work would be done in a few weeks, less with luck.
Over the next days Katie managed to avoid Jim, but each evening after their dinner, Nick would linger to help with the dishes.
And as she got to know him, Katie looked forward to those short hours they spent together. She enjoyed his company and his conversation for he was surprisingly well educated and entertained her by reciting the poets Browning, Bradley and Eliot. And he made her laugh; for those briefs moments she forgot her loneliness and fears.
That she found him attractive, Katie couldn’t deny, and she saw the reciprocal admiration in his own eyes. His smile warmed her and inadvertent touches made her skin tingle. She’d not known the pleasure to be had when two people chose one-another’s company simply for the sake of it. And she knew her growing fondness for Nick could not be dismissed as a lonely young bride yearning for her husband.
Yet nevertheless she was married, and they both, by silent agreement, maintained a friendship that was strictly above board.
One afternoon, Katie was digging her kitchen garden. She rose, a bunch of carrots in hand, and turning abruptly, bumped nose-to-chest with Jim.
“Oh! Mr. Casey,” she gasped in surprise as his arms came up, ostensibly to steady her. “Please...” she twisted from his rough embrace and took a step backwards. “Are you looking for something? Where’s Nick?” she added, glancing around.
“Nick, is it? While I’m Mr. Casey.” He advanced toward her, his grin had turned wolfish. “Don’t be shy, now. Think I don’t know what you ‘n’ Nick get up to every night? Don’t I deserve a bit o’ goodie meself!”
He made a lunge at her. With a yelp she leapt aside and threw the carrots, dirt and all, into his ugly, leering face. “Bloody whore!” he bellowed, his hands flying to his eyes, affording her valuable seconds.
She took off at a lumbering run toward the cabin. “Nick!” She screamed, remembering he was partly deaf, “Niiiiick!”
Katie reached the cabin, slammed the door and drove home the bolt in one panicked thrust. Jim threw himself against it with a terrifying thump. “Open up ya teasing bitch!” he raged.
By now Katie was shaking fitfully but took up her favourite cast-iron pan and held it above her head. Suddenly all was silent, and to Katie that was more frightening than the crashing.
She faced the door, breathing heavily, pan held aloft, and was entirely unprepared for the shattering of glass in the other room. Darting into the bedroom she arrived just in time to see Jim’s head and torso reaching through the window. With a shriek she lunged forward and wielded the pan with all her strength.
She missed! Missed and followed through, sending the pan flying across the room to clatter against the wall. But Jim was disappearing, pulled backwards through the window. What followed then was a series of grunts, blue curses and bone-crunching thumps.
Dropping to the floor, Katie hid, trembling and gasping behind her bed, and even when the fighting outside seemed over, she remained frozen in place.
She heard it: the scrambling at the window. She heard the grunt as he fell through and landed on the floor. She held her breath.
“Oh Nick!” She cried with relief. Jumping to her feet, she fairly flew into his arms where he held her as she sobbed against his torn and bloodied shirt.
He stroked her hair. “Shhhh...he’s gone – took off. He won’t be back.”
Much later, after repairing the window, Nick sat naked to the waist at Katie’s kitchen table as she bathed and bound the deep gash Jim’s shears had scored across his chest. Afterwards, they shared a meal and neither spoke for some time.
“I didn’t think he had it in him,” Nick said at last. “Always reckoned he would but...thought he was all talk. Shoulda known...”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Anyway,” he gave a deep sigh. “Shearing’s done. I was comin’ up to tell you when I heard the racket.”
“I suppose I’d better get it to market...and pay you.” She’d come to enjoy the evenings with Nick at her side. And now she would have to accustom herself to loneliness again.
It showed on her face and he reached for her hand. “You’ll be alright, Missus,” he said, angling one of his cheeky winks at her. “Anyway, no need to pay me. I’ve had a full belly and a dry bed for three weeks. Not to mention an audience for my poorly performed recitals.”
“But you...you fixed up the chook shed...” she said, inadequately and swallowed hard, fighting tears. He wanted to hold her, comfort her through the night, but instead he returned to his solitary bedroll in the barn.
The next morning he slung his swag over his back and pressed a long, firm kiss to her mouth. Then he turned, and was gone.
The calico Walter had sent for the kitchen became a yellow-striped dress for she’d out-grown her old dresses. It was May and she’d endured the worst the Western Australian summer could deliver and now she relaxed in the knowledge that autumn would bring rain and milder conditions.
Balmy nights like this, she sat outside her cabin watching the chooks scratch and peck at the ground while the life within her belly stirred and kicked and her thoughts turned to Nick Hanrahan. She didn’t know where he’d gone. She hoped he was safe. She wondered if he thought about her. She wished...he would come back.
But her thoughts also dwelt on her husband. Eight months it had been since Walter had gone to Perth. She couldn’t help it: she was angry, resentful, forsaken by a husband that knew her dependence upon him, but had left her regardless.
She’d trusted her fleece to another farmer on his way to the markets and told Bluey to pray that the man proved honest. He’d stopped on his return journey and given her what money he said he’d made for her. And though she knew it was less than the fleece’s value, he also gave her sacks of flour, oats, planting seed, tea, sugar and a haunch of smoked ham, so she considered it a reasonable deal.
She lived frugally and could survive quite adequately, but her pregnancy was now well advanced. She was fearful of the approaching birth and fretted over what would happen to her out here alone. She’d contemplated abandoning everything and going to Perth. But all Walter had left her was a sway-backed old plough horse – he’d never make the journey.
And what if Walter returned to find her gone? What of the sheep, the chickens?
She read over again, the single page held in her hand and one paragraph leapt out at her,
They’re shipping us out. Apparently we’re going to land on a beach but they can’t say where. The Kiwis are with us, ANZACs they’re calling us and mighty proud we are of it too. Should be all over by the end of April.
But April had passed and there’d been no word.
It was late May when Gerald Murphy from the Royal Mail called by. He handed her two letters and asked if he could sleep in her barn and buy some feed for his horse. She agreed to both and turned her attention to her mail. One letter was from her mother. The other – very official looking – bore the crest of the Australian Army. Her knees grew weak as she tore open the envelope, and as she read, she slumped to the floor, the letter pressed to her chest.
Outside in the chook shed, the rooster heard the wail of grief and fear that echoed from the cabin. He fluffed his feathers and returned to the feed box – his world hadn’t changed.
The postman, bathing in the dam, heard nothing.
That night Katie went into labour. Her screams alerted Gerald and he came running from the barn. As a mailman, he’d never delivered a baby before, and Katie, gasping, told him she’d never had one before.
He stayed with her and as the first streaks of dawn coloured the sky, the cabin was filled with the thin cries of a newborn – Geraldine, in honour of the postman.
The next months were difficult for Katie. Gerald Murphy visited regularly – even without mail – never arriving empty handed, and between caring for Geraldine and the farm, her days were filled.
But at night, as Geraldine slept peacefully in a crate, the loss of her husband and the bleakness of her situation closed around her. And occasionally, when she let herself, her thoughts turned to those brief, wonderful evenings with Nick Hanrahan.
Then one rainy winter’s night Katie was sitting beside a companionable fire knitting with wool from her own sheep, when she heard the sound of a horse approaching the cabin.
Checking first to ensure Geraldine was safe in her crate, she turned to the door.
These days she had no qualms about handling her pistol. She held it unwaveringly before her and when the knock sounded, she cocked it so it was audible from outside. “Who is it?” she called.
“It’s me, Nick,” came the reply. “Please don’t shoot!”
With a cry she flung open the door and beheld him there, wet and grinning.
Speechless, her arm dropped to her side. Gently, he took the gun, released the hammer and returned it, butt first.
At last she found her tongue. “Where’ve you been?”
He shrugged. “Working odd jobs. I heard about Walter – Gallipoli.”
She sighed sadly. “So you came back?”
“I thought you might need...a farmhand?” His eyes searched her face and spoke a different question.
“You wouldn’t be just a farmhand.”
He grinned then, and tears spilled over her cheeks. “It’s been ages, Nick, but you came back.” She added in a whisper, “I’ve missed you.”
He looked out into the night before turning back to her, smiling gently. “I’ve missed you too. But I took the long road home, just to ... to be sure you were ready. May I come in? It’s raining out here.”
Well, that brings me to the end of my long, short story. I hope you've enjoyed it. If you'd like to read more of my short stories, you can purchase a copy of All That & Everything, a compilation of some of my stories.
Until next week, why not write your own short story? If you'd like some feedback on it, feel free to send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.