|Chapter One - I Know You
No matter how old we got or how hard things were, when I looked at him I always saw the shade of that boy I first met, sharp elbows and sharper knees, a face that was perhaps too thin but then we was all thin. Ne’er enough food to go round for them that was trying to scratch out an existence on the poor bits of dirt that they called selections. Truth was if any one had said go take your pick of any bit of Australia that you wanted none of us Irish would have chosen them spots, but that was what we got and so it was make the best of it, and try and get enough out of it to keep us all alive.
We never did really pay much attention to birthdays so I don’t rightly know just how old I was but the first time I met him it was before I went to school, me Ma, me brothers and sisters and I was looking for the little calf me Da had bought from the German, Mr Wilkes up the road. The silly thing had stopped bawling for her dam but she had pulled through the bit of rope tying her to the fence around the shack and gone bush, looking for her Ma. Now we was out there, all of us that was old enough to look, trying to find her before it got dark and our bright hope of milk and meat in the future ended up cold and dead in some dry creek.
I had lost sight of Ma her going one way and me t’other and was trying not to feel scared, the bush was a big place and I was feeling real small just then, holding me breath and trying to hear me Mam so that I could run back to her and pretend that I had not been frightened one bit. The only thing I could hear was them noisy parrots and the fool kookaburras laughing up in the hills.
“yer not lost are yer?”
The voice that drifted down out of the tree above me was almost enough to make me yell, such a fright it gave me, but I did not let out a squeak, truth be told I don’t think I could have, me mouth seemed to have stuck shut and me feet seemed like they had taken up root in that dusty ground. I had not really time to find words when this boy swung down out of the gum tree landing on the ground in front of me.
He was skinny, pointed elbows and pointed chin and his knees stuck sharp through the patched trousers he wore, not that patches meant anything much, the dress I was wearing being so patched no one really knew what its real colour had once been. His hair was curly around his face and his eyes were all sparkly like he knew summat funny that no one else did and he was just bustin to share it. If he had been a girl they would have called him pretty, though he would have not liked that, but even back then he had this sort of shiny light about him. I suppose you would have said him handsome though he never would have thought that, his hand reaching to brush over his upper lip even as he landed on his feet, fingers covering over what could have been a faint scar. Later I knew more of what it was and there was one time I asked him about it, during those times that we talked as we got older, and he had ducked his head and covered it with his hand. Muffled words that as soon as he was old enough he would be growing a fine mustache to cover it and when I had told him he was silly he had shook his head at me. As if to say and what would you know. But right then that first time that I really saw him, I just noticed that he was sort of hiding something, but could not really see what. So I just looked at his eyes again, and he looked back at me.
“I’m Joe Byrne” he announced
“I know that, I know you” I had seen him at church fidgeting while his Ma frowned at him. Of course I knew who he was, so I gave him my best stern glare and tried to sound haughty like I imagined a fine lady would sound who had been given a terrible start by some wild tree boy but he dinnae seem impressed at all. Just tilted his nose in the air and adopted a grand sort of expression as if he knew just what I was up to and then the cheeky sod bowed and stuck out a grubby hand. I found myself shaking it while he grinned at me.
“yer calf’s in me Ma’s garden” he tilted his away from me “she sent me to tell yer Mother”
And that was how we met. Me Ma sent me back with Joe Byrne and we spent the next hour dragging that lummox of a calf back home, a pair of scrawny kids being dragged all over by a bawling heifer so that we was all mud and sweat and scratches. Joe he could swear pretty good too and I learnt some words that would have had me Ma reaching for the soap if she had heard but we did get her home and by that time we was friends.