Bob, a stockman with an alcohol problem, has been let go from Chenery’s Delatite station. He knows he won’t work as a stockman again, so decides to set up a grog shanty at the ford on the Devil’s River – the only way in and out of new goldfields in the High Country nearby. The spot he’s chosen also happens to be on land leased to Chenery, part of Delatite. Betsy harbours ambitions of more than a shanty – Bob’s promised her a proper coaching inn…

The sun glints off the shallow rapids. Across the river ancient stringybarks guard the scrub sprawling across the valley to the west, pulling up short at the base of the hills. Insects whirr their soothing songs and a crow calls a lazy kaagh kaagh high above.
This bend in the river where Bob has chosen to build our coaching inn is nothing like Delatite’s gentle grassy slopes. It has a wilder beauty, the untamed scrub hiding primaeval secrets, older even than the natives’ dreamtimes.
We do have this in common, that we share the same Devil’s River. I can’t help my shiver of discomfort, despite the sun pummelling my unbonneted head. The Devil’s River is an ill-omened name for this new beginning in our lives. At Delatite, the river was a paddock and a homestead away from my door, hidden below steep, ever-changing banks, dimly heard and rarely seen. Here it is close and alive, burbling its apparent innocence over dark rocks. I could choose not to call this bit of water the Devil’s River because that isn’t its formal name – its formal name is the Delatite, the same as the station. Which is why I will never call this river the Delatite, not with the word’s forever reminders of those last bitter days. Shunned by the other staff, warned not to come to the big house, the final shame arrived with the embarrassed Mrs Everton skulking in the doorway of the hut late one night like a reluctant beggar. She shoved my reference and discharge into my hands, gabbled, ‘So sorry, God bless,’ and fled back across the paddock, to my distress. Emily stayed away, to Johnny’s distress.
God bless.
An old memory rises of myself and my sisters stepping daintily, as Mother urged, into the forever chilly porch of St Mary’s in Twickenham to sit quietly beside her and Papa, hearing Reverend Proby pleading with his flock to count our blessings. The little Betsy never understood what blessings she should count in those contented days.
The glittering river babbles along and I dismiss my silly superstitions about names, instead praying that new blessings from the pure, snow-speckled mountains will flow along this Devil’s River to wash at my door.
I splash water on my face and decide to bathe the boys here this evening. Tomorrow I’ll wash bedding and shirts and spread them over branches of lemon-scented gums to dry.
Back at the tent I build up the cooking fire to prepare dinner, half an eye on Johnny. He’s near the sawpit, ‘helping’ Bob dress posts for the inn’s verandah. Not that it’s an inn, not really, not yet. The labourers who have come and gone during the build call it a shanty, although a solid one. Four rooms and a stone verandah, with rails for hitching the guests’ horses. There’s to be a stable for the mare and I’ll have a cow, perhaps a pig. Vegetable beds have already been dug. Tiny leeks for the winter are planted in drills, needing water daily.
Inn, or shanty, I can’t wait to move in. Whenever my tasks allow, I stand with my back to the river, Thomas in my arms and Johnny by my side, watching my home grow before me.
‘Ours,’ I whisper into the baby’s ear.
My head dances with visions of sitting on hot afternoons on the stone verandah, cool within its deep shade, busy at my mending, keeping an eye on the busy trail of packhorses and drays traipsing the track between Mansfield and The Jamieson, ever ready to welcome a thirsty guest.
And inside! My boxes of cut-outs from Mrs Chenery’s discarded ladies’ magazines, saved for years and meant for the Delatite hut, will now adorn my own walls. Rag rugs and dried ferns will have to do for the earthen floors until we can afford wooden boards. Bob’s enthusiasm for our venture tempted me into asking for glass for the windows – a request which earned a short, ‘Think we’re made o’ money?’
Perhaps as some sort of compensation, myself and the boys were allowed a rare treat, going with Bob into Mansfield where I bought printed calico for curtains to brighten the green hide shutters in the parlour, where the customers will gather. Afterwards, in the arid afternoons, I perched on a felled trunk under a red gum and hemmed the calico to fit the measurements the carpenter gave me. The curtains, wrapped in brown paper, are in the dray, tucked among the pots and billies and other paraphernalia waiting for their shelves on the timber walls. Thomas is tucked up there too, asleep in his basket.
The mutton soup is nearly done. A bushfly drinks at my sweaty forehead and I brush it away, rocking back on my heels to watch Johnny and Bob. It appears Johnny has been banished from his father’s company. He squats in the dust, well out of Bob’s way, hunched over two timber cut-offs and a length of twine.
Bob’s temper may not be improved, but in the first of my new blessings I’ve been cautiously grateful that he’s touched no liquor since we arrived here. He works from sunrise to sundown, sawing and hammering. Every night he sluices off the dust and sweat in the cool rapids, eats like he hasn’t seen food for days, rolls himself in his blanket and sleeps the sleep of the physically exhausted.