It was such a beautiful day that I took my time walking back to Beechworth. Mrs Devine had sent me to the Straughair place down in the Woolshed, to bring Mrs Straughair the dress she had ordered that had just come in from Melbourne on the midday coach. I had been told I need not bother presenting myself back at the shop once my errand was done, so after enjoying a welcome cup of tea with Mrs Straughair, I decided that I would not walk back along the main road but take the path through the bush instead. I was in no hurry to get back to the cramped little house I shared with my family on the outskirts of town, and relished the opportunity to spend some quiet time alone with my thoughts. I breathed in the strong eucalyptus scent of the trees surrounding me and smiled at the cackle of a kookaburra nearby. Keeping an eye out for snakes so that I would not accidentally step on any, I followed the well-worn path, trying to remember if Reedy Creek looped around that part of the valley. After my hot walk the thought of sitting down by the creek and soaking my feet in its cool waters was very enticing.
I noticed pink Belladonna lilies growing a little way off the path and thought that they might brighten up the dreary room we called parlour back home, so I decided to pick some. With a thick bunch of lilies in my hands, I was on my way back to the path when I heard the sound of running water through the trees. Delighted, I turned around and made my way toward the sound. I soon found myself on top of a small ridge, the creek just a few feet down below. As I was looking for the best way to get down to the water through the undergrowth, I heard a noise from the other side. Instinctively I hid behind a wattle bush. There were some unsavoury characters around who would think nothing of accosting any female they came across, especially if it was out of sight of anyone else in the bush.
I sat still, holding my breath as I watched a horse and rider come into view. They came to a halt at water’s edge and the rider dismounted. His back was turned towards me so all I could see was that he was well-dressed and seemed young. I relaxed, thinking he would not present a threat to me and I was just about to stand up and make myself known to him when he turned and took the hat off his head and I realised with a jolt that it was Joe Byrne.
I had not seen Joe since he had been to the shop some weeks ago but if I am honest, I have to confess I had thought about him often enough. Seeing him right there in front of me all of a sudden was quite a shock. I hesitated, feeling the colour rising in my cheeks. What on earth could I say to him? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, telling myself to stop being ridiculous. I was on my way back to town from an errand and he was probably on his way to his mother’s who I knew lived nearby; it was just chance that we happened upon each other. Determined, I opened my eyes and made to stand up to let Joe know I was there but the words died on my lips and I froze when I saw what he was doing.
The horse had moved a bit further away, grazing on the grass, and Joe was sitting on the ground, pulling off his boots. He had removed his jacket which lay neatly folded on a tree trunk next to him, and it was quite clear to me what he meant to do: go for a swim. I know I should have stood up and called out to him or retreated quietly back into the bush to respect his privacy but I was mesmerised by the sight of his hands that were now unbuttoning his shirt. I tried to tell myself I should look away or close my eyes but God forgive me I could not, no matter how hard I tried. Reciting soundless Hail Marys in my head in
a vain attempt to distract myself, I watched Joe drop his shirt on top of his jacket. His back was towards me as he unbuckled his belt and removed his trousers, carefully folding them and putting them with his other clothes. Then he turned around again and started unbuttoning his union suit, button after button from the top down and I swallowed, quite light-headed. I think I stopped breathing completely when he got to the last button and pulled the garment off. Unlike his other clothes, he just tossed it behind him. Then he lifted his arms above his head and stretched. I swear the Virgin herself could not have looked away at that moment - I have no words to describe him, except to say he was beautiful. I desperately wanted to run my hands along his smooth back and down his legs, and kneel in front of him and... I was blushing furiously at my thoughts as Joe walked into the creek, completely at ease in his nakedness. With a splash he immersed himself in the water and I told myself it was my chance to leave without him noticing but it was as if I was rooted to the spot and I resigned myself to a good long while in the confessional next Mass. Surely staying a little bit longer would not make it any worse.
After a little while Joe climbed out of the creek, brushing his wet hair back with both hands, and lay down on the grassy bank in the sun. He linked his hands behind his head and closed his eyes and it occurred to me that he might fall asleep. I told myself I would take one last look, as it was not likely I would ever get to see Joe Byrne naked again, and then I would be on my way as quietly as I could. I let my eyes wander down from the wet curls on his head to his faintly smiling lips and over the chest rising and falling in rhythm with his breath, to his narrow hips... and to his suddenly very obvious arousal. I had to bite my lip to keep myself quiet as Joe languidly folded his fingers around his swelling cock and proceeded to pleasure himself. I fleetingly wondered if he was thinking about the friend for whom he had bought the red dress - I had no doubt she was someone with whom he had intimate relations - and how he would react if I just stood up and walked over to lie down with him. I was shocked by the boldness of my thoughts but there was a need deep within me that I had never felt before. There was something about Joe Byrne that was different to other men, and I was starting to understand why the girls from The Star spoke about him the way they did.
All thoughts about leaving completely forgotten, I watched Joe and yearned to be with him but I could not find my courage. He let out a quiet moan when he was done and lay still for a while, smiling to himself. Then he got up and dressed, got on his horse and rode away. Feeling strangely sad, I picked up my bunch of lilies and made my way back to the path. I had only walked a few minutes when I saw a horse and rider approaching. It was Joe Byrne. I did not know where to put my eyes and felt the colour rising hot into my cheeks. Joe did not stop his horse but tilted his hat and smiled at me as I stood aside to let them pass.
“Hello Anna. Such a hot day to be walking! Yer should join me for a swim next time.” He was whistling as he continued on.
I was so busy puzzling over how he would know my name that it took a while for the rest of his words to sink in. Jesus Mary and Joseph.