When Reverend John O'Connell arrived at the Settlement, he did not seem to be strong enough for frontier life. The Settlement was still only a small group of huts by the river bank, surrounded by thick scrub. There was no church. He had to travel over his huge parish by pulling boat. In spite of the fact that his delicate health would obviously prevent him from performing his duties, the people along the river did their best to make him welcome. There were twenty-five baptisms and three burial services to be performed for a start. Some families including the Wilsons and the Hewitts had adopted little black girls, and these were also christened by the minister.
The christening of Eliza and Baby William on June 11 was also a farewell. Some of the chickens and pigs would provide a small feast for the christening party. Everybody came and contributed food. Even Captain Freeburn took time off from loading the 'Bessie'. He was taking timber to Sydney, and was then booked to take passengers and sundries to Valparaiso, and bring back cargo from South America.
"Watch they don't sell you any more of that flour," laughed Magdalen.
"I'll tell them you said you were not satisfied," he said.
Mr Phillips came in briefly, made a speech about William's reputation as a shipwright, hoped he would try again on the Richmond River to build another ship, and presented Magdalen with a little box in which were needles, pins, scissors and a thimble... precious items indeed!
Old Mick Ivory, a pathetic figure, played a melody on his gum leaf. A catchy tune. Somebody began to sing. The concertina picked up the tune, everyone clapped in time. It was a song of the times, sung at many camp-fires that night, all around New South Wales... 'The Old Bullock Dray'.
"So roll up your bundle and let us make a push
I'll take you up the country and show you the bush.
I'll be bound such a chance you won't get another day
So roll up and take possession of the Old Bullock Dray."
By the second and third verses most of the enthusiastic singers were joining in the chorus, even those who had never heard it before. But while they sang lustily they could not ignore the fact that the 'Bush' was not just a place for adventure and opportunity. Living was a never-ending struggle with Death.
"A man pays for errors of judgement with his life" was a thought which could not entirely be dismissed no matter how they tried to ignore it.
Their friends especially Sarah and Joe Cooper and Mary Bawden silently hoped that providence would smile. The new owner of William's partly-built ship, had named it the 'Providence' and it seemed a good omen.
The two-wheeled dray stood nearby, carefully loaded with the big items, so as to distribute the weight evenly, and leave accessible tents and other articles needed for the journey. William estimated that the load was two tons, including flour, sugar, tea, spices, blankets, tools, nails, cloth, tobacco, gifts for the Blacks; the whole covered with a tarpaulin. A few chickens, two piglets, and Jessie's calf would also ride in the dray. Jessie would follow her calf, which they called Bessie.
Reverend John O'Connell, coughing frequently, prayed for the undertaking, and his words were repeated in the hearts of all present. Nobody alluded to any danger.
The next day the last articles were packed on the dray, and the team yoked in the usual order. William went to Mr Hewitt's store, having checked and rechecked his list. He finalised his account by spending the balance of his credit on extra items for the medical chest. Everything he had got from the sale of his ship and the timber, had been invested.
"Is it getting too civilised for you in Woolport?" asked Mr Hewitt. "I've engaged a blacksmith who has just arrived this morning. Pity you won't be here to give him some trade."
"I don't think he'll be short of customers. I've had to do my own blacksmithing until now and have managed to mend bows and chains after a fashion. Well I'll be off. I'll be seeing you."
"I hope so. Indeed I hope so Mr Yabsley. Have a safe journey. My regards and best wishes to your wife and family. Goodbye Mr Yabsley."
William walked back to the hut where the dray and bullock team were waiting. He picked up his long whip, cracked it with his left hand, and with the creaking of the hubs, the heavily laden dray moved off slowly. Magdalen carried the baby, while Jane held Eliza' s hand to stop the two-year old from dancing around. The girls wore their new boots, made by Mick Ivory, and stepped out briskly. At first the children played in the creeks they crossed, loitered to examine objects, or ran ahead and then sat on a log to wait for the dray.
It was fifty miles to the Richmond. William was familiar with the country for twenty miles around Woolport, and believed that he could travel at three miles an hour for most of the way. At an average of two miles an hour that would be twenty-five hours of travelling time or about four or five days allowing for hold-ups.
At nine o'clock they left Woolport and travelled steadily until four o'clock in the afternoon, with only a short break for lunch and feeding the baby. At times William carried the baby. Sometimes Eliza sat on the back of the dray, sometimes she rode on her father's shoulders. By afternoon when they halted near a creek, Eliza was well past her usual sleep-time and was quite irritable. Magdalen took blankets from the dray, and put her down to have a sleep, while she fed the baby and the men made camp for the night.
"Looks like a spot of rain," observed William. "Better get Jane to collect plenty of firewood. But don't move out of sight of the dray for a moment."
"We'd better pitch both tents instead of us men sleepin' under the dray," said John. "Bloody weather. It ain't s'pose to rain now."
"The main problem is the bullocks get sore and chafed if they have to work long hours in the rain. The sore spots keep rubbing and don't heal."
Magdalen lit a fire and put a large piece of salt pork in a pot, resting on stones. Over another section of the fire she boiled a billy can for tea, hanging it from a stick. By the time the tea was made, she had a damper ready. When the flames had died down, she raked away some of the ashes, deftly dropped her damper in, and covered it with ashes. She fed the chickens and pigs, milked Jessie the cow, and let the calf suckle.
The men had unyoked the bullocks and let them wander off to graze nearby. Their bells tinkled with a reassuring sound. The dray was the focal point of the camp. Guns were within reach at any moment.
William had organised their departure to coincide with the full moon. But there was no moon that night. They ate in the gathering darkness, without appetite, they were so tired.
The men took turns to guard the bullocks and Jessie, while the others slept, William, Magdalen and the children in one tent, the men in the other. They were up at daybreak to bring in the bullocks and yoke them. They were yoked in pairs to the pole and the dray was reloaded. By eight o'clock breakfast was over and they were ready to move off again, down to a little creek. Suddenly, as the dray jolted forward, a tyre came off the wheel and went rolling into the creek, like a child's hoop.
"Confound it," shouted John.
Everyone stood still in dismay.
William contemplated for a moment, then walked to the creek without a word, scooped the tyre out with his whip, and began to unyoke the bullocks.
"Make some more tea," he said at last.
Magdalen took out the billy-can, pannikins and the tinder-box. Jane fetched water from the creek while her mother struck the flint with the back of a pocket-knife until a spark dropped onto the tinder, and gently blew it to produce a flame. As soon as some leaves were alight, the brass tinder-box was tightly covered to keep it quite dry.
The wheel had to be taken off the dray and a block of wood put under the axle. William cut a sapling with a good fork, which he could use as a slide for the wheel and tyre. The men worked together in hostile silence. Pulling the slide by a greenhide strap over one shoulder, his gun over the other, William set off for Woolport. The others could only wait and watch.
Late that afternoon William approached Mr Hewitt's store as fast as the great weight of the huge wheel would allow, and sought the forge, near the stables. Mr Noud was still quite disorganised. His forge was incomplete, and his anvil, hammer, tongs, and bellows lay around in confusion.
"How soon can you do something for me? It's most urgent."
"Right away sir. I expect I'll be quite busy as soon as I put my sign up. At the moment you're my only customer."
William helped Mr Noud to light his fire and prepare his forge. The bellows puffed and the anvil rang. Under the blows of the sledge hammer the sparks flew.
"I'll 'ave to cut a fraction from this," said Mr Noud." It must've been slightly too big or it wouldn't 'ave come off. Probably stretched with wear."
He rejoined the tyre, exactly the size to pass over the fellies when heated. Then he allowed it to cool, and the tyre firmly gripped the wheel.
"Good tight fit," said Mr Noud examining it.
"How much do I owe you?" asked William.
"That'll be 'alf a sovereign to you sir."
"Write me an account please. I'll have to pay you later."
Mr Noud wrote "Cutting and shutting one tyre to rim one half sovereign."
"Thank you very much. I'll send it first chance I get"
"Where do you live?"
"We're on our way from Woolport to the Richmond River. I have no money as I spent it all on provisions. But I assure you I'll send you the money."
Mr Noud did not say anything. "My first dead loss," he thought. "I'll learn by experience I dare say. Always expect some like this."
William slept in his hut again overnight, ate a slice of the damper Magdalen had given him, and set off at first light. He arrived back at the dray twelve miles away just as rain was beginning to fall.
Magdalen sat in the tent with the children. Eliza usually happy and full of energy, was being difficult. Jane was reading and Magdalen was trying to sew. The evening meal was cooking.
"Well," said William as he came up. "Let's get this wheel back on the dray, and ready for an early start tomorrow."
The men were surprised at how quickly he had returned with the heavy wheel over rough country. They worked together until after dark in the thickening rain.
"Rain looks set in," observed John.
They all ate in the one tent, eating their stew, drinking their tea and contemplating the rain which was now falling so heavily as to quench the fire.
"Jane dear, be careful not to touch the canvas or the rain will come in."
Magdalen rocked the baby in her arms, as his cradle had been taken apart to pack. When he had settled down, Magdalen put him among the possum skin blankets which also served them as cloaks, and then began to attend to Eliza.
"We'd better dig some trenches," suggested John. "At least we don't have to worry about finding water."
Over their tea and pipes, the men talked about the opportunities they hoped to find on the Richmond River.
"Mr Fry says all the timber wouldn't be cut for four or five centuries, yet it's nearly all cut on the Clarence already. What's easy to get out at least."
"Before the timber gets short on the Richmond, I intend to have some other irons in the fire," said William.
"You're looking a long way ahead," John speculated.
"Not so far as you'd think. Remember how quickly the cedar has gone off the Crown Land from the Illawarra to the Clarence. And it doesn't grow again," said William. "If one doesn't plan ahead, the timber will be gone and also the opportunities to go into other fields."
"Me self I don't look too far ahead. It's too depressing. I live for the day," said John.
"You won't find anything much more depressing than this day," said Magdalen trying to settle Eliza while the men talked.
At the sound of her voice it occurred to the men that her task would be easier if they left, so they pulled on their damp boots, put on their hats and coats, lit a tiny fire under the dray to give some flickering light by which to dig the trenches.
"We'd better be more organised than this tomorrow night if it's still raining," said John as he struggled with cold and clumsy fingers.
The camp settled for the night. At daybreak they were up, preparing to leave. The creek which yesterday was small enough for Jane to jump across, was now too deep to wade through. It was nearly up to the tray of the dray as the bullocks struggled across, and plodded up the bank at their slow steady pace. Progress was slow. It rained almost without ceasing. The men cleared the fallen trees where they could; where this was not practical they took the bullock team around the obstruction. The undergrowth of bushes, vines and creepers made this very difficult.
Several bullock teams and timber-cutters had passed along the route during the last year or so, and in general they followed the same tracks. Some spots had been churned up and had become mud slides. On steep hills the men cut chocks which they used to stop the wheels from slipping, while they helped the bullock team to negotiate the muddy slope. Sometimes they dragged the heavy dray sideways, or swivelled it about to put it in the best position, using every ounce of their strength. If the dray moved off with a jerk, they landed on hands and knees in the mud.
"Bullocks hides are easily chafed by damp yokes." William was concerned.
The creeks were overflowing and sometimes they had to wait for days until it was safe to cross. The rain ceased for a day or two, the muddy waters cleared, the level dropped, they forded the next creek, and the rain started again. At times the bullocks worked up to their knees in mud. When the dray bogged the men dug around the wheels, using wood and stones under the wheels to get a grip. Or they wedged a stout stick under the wheel and pushed to the limit of their strength while the bullocks strained in the yoke. The dray moved forward a few feet and sank into the morass again.
The track got steadily worse as they got further from the Clarence as few timber-getters came so far. Progress was slower and slower. The bullocks were all terribly chafed.
Their clothes were unspeakably dirty. When the weather was good there was little time to stop for washing. When it rained there was no point in washing. The baby's washing remained wet for days at a time. As soon as they stopped, if the weather was fine, Magdalen spread all the wet things on branches and bushes. Finding the time to wash their hair in a tin dish was a major problem, especially for Magdalen with her long thick hair. Everything under the tarpaulin smelled of mildew. At night they slept in damp bedding.
One of the men jammed his hand under the load, and Magdalen had to bathe and bandage it. The children were quarrelsome and William found them irritating. Magdalen tried to be patient with them, and stop them from bothering the men.
"They're all right Mrs Yabsley," said John. "You should've 'eard the children on the ship I came on. The mothers were nearly distracted because there was just no privacy. Your three are really good."
After weeks on the way they began to wonder if there was another way to live, whether they would ever be clean, dry and comfortable again. Surely there was somewhere another life. Nobody complained. The pioneering spirit forbad it. The men could not complain in Magdalen's presence, and as Magdalen did not have the heavy work to do, she would have thought it ungracious to complain. Jane tried very hard for a nine-year-old. The baby was restive and Eliza got into mischief, continually.
"When will we be there?" asked Jane and had to accept the completely vague answers. It was impossible to calculate how far they had come because of all the detours. Jane knew better than to pester her parents, so she was inclined to keep her thoughts to herself. She had learned to be patient and self-controlled, and in many ways had an unchild-like resignation.
"She's like her father," John commented. "Not exactly talkative."
"She was quite different when she was with our relatives near Sydney," said Magdalen. "I sometimes think she's getting too quiet. There's been no-one her own age." She glanced at William who was absorbed with some unknown project which pre-occupied him. Half to herself she said "It's most difficult to know what people are thinking about or planning to do, when they are uncommunicative."
"I think you know how to manage him," laughed John, a bit embarrassed. "You know the time to ask."
"Oh I'm not complaining," she hastened to add. "I know he would never do anything that was not in our interests. I trust his judgement, but being a curious woman I would like to know what he plans."
"Well it's just as well we didn't know about this weather. And it's just as well you didn't leave Woolport on your own. Without the four of us, you would never have made it to the Richmond."
"That's a fact. You know, if I had been asked I would have said before we left, that I was afraid of dying of thirst. You hear of so many who do in Outback Australia."
"No chance of that here."
During a break in the weather they took time to climb a nearby hill, from which John reported that, by climbing a tree, he had seen both rivers. From the tree they had a fine view of the country between the Clarence and the Richmond. Towards the sea there were enormous swamps. They looked for a moment and made their way down again.
William had to fix ropes to the dray and pass them round trees to ease the strain on a very steep gully... and on... and on... and on...
* * *
Many days they made no progress at all. Instead of two miles an hour, they averaged two miles a day. After six weeks they came to the Richmond River.
"Here we are," said Magdalen with mixed relief and apprehension. "About to start all over again from scratch."
"We have a bit more than we started with in the Settlement."
"Mm. Yes. We've got a bullock team, a dray, provisions for a year, and two more babies. Now tell me where are we going to live?"