|“Aaron. Wha ar’ ya
doin’?” Joe sighed, thinking of his best mate. It
seemed as though everyone else could do nothing but warn him of his
wayward friend’s attentions of late, but he never would
believe it to be true. There was impossible to believe that Aaron had
been working with the coppers. He threw a stone at the burnt out tree
trunk across from him. “Impossable! He
wouldn’t!” he grumbled as his eyes moved up the
hill to where he knew Ned and Tom stood amongst the trees, keeping
watch while he waiting for Aaron to show up.
Joe told Ned that Aaron wouldn’t betray them and never would. Ned hadn’t seemed so sure because of all they’d been hearing but he trusted Joe and gave the benefit of the doubt. They come up with a plan so Joe sent a letter to Aaron, asking him to meet with him. They had decided to ask Aaron to join the gang and show everyone, especially the Lloyds and Quinns who wanted him shot dead, that he wasn’t the traitor they believed him to be. Besides, Joe wanted to spend some time catching up with him since they hadn’t seen each other for months. Maybe they’d even go for a pint or two, have a right good time.
Yet here he sat, waiting for Aaron at the appointed spot and his ‘best mate’ was nowhere to be found.
Joe shook his head. “Wha are ye Aaron? You’ve naw idea waaat I’ve 'ad ter go through, convincin' everyone dat yer not a traitor. All yer 'ad ter do is show up!” he growled. “Dat bleedin Hart 'ad better av given yer me message. If only we 'ad caught up witcha de other noight at Kate’s. But yer jist disappeared.“
He groaned, rubbing a hand over his face as he tried to put his mind onto a different path. It didn’t work and Joe’s frustration was only aggravated of thoughts of that snob Mullane talking behind his back about the money he owed him. Just thinking of the man got Joe’s blood boiling, and his hands curled into fists. “I’ll shoot dat bleedin langer if he crosses me path, oi swear it!”
His eyes moved back out to the open range again. He couldn’t believe it; wouldn’t believe it. Aaron wasn’t a traitor. He’d never betray him. There had to be some explanation for all of it. Why the coppers were always hanging around his place. Why he was seen talking with them. Why he hadn’t come to tell what he was doing.
Why Kate said those same coppers came to talk to her after Aaron had left.
“Naw, he wouldn’t betray us,” he mumbled, his eyes scanning the horizon. “Where are ya Aaron?”
Aaron tossed back the shot of whiskey, squeezing his eyes shut as it burned its way down his throat. He set the empty glass on the bar and motioned to Johnny to fill it again. The bar keep walked over his lips pursed, as he glared at Aaron. “Yer sure yer want ter stay 'ere Aaron?” he asked. Aaron tossed a few more coins onto the bar and Johnny looked him in the eye before filling his glass with the dark liquid. “Jist thought yer might be wantin' ter go seein' 'oy you’ve got naw lads 'ere an' al'.”
“Oi got lads,” Aaron growled at him.
Johnny leaned over the bar, his voice a harsh whisper. “You’ve none 'ere mucker. None but dem coppers you’re alwus spendin' yer time wi'.” Both men’s eyes swung to the table at the end of the bar where three men sat. Everyone in the pub knew they were undercover agents for the Victoria Police. “Oi don’t want trouble 'ere Aaron,” Johnny told him. “An' that’s al' you’re gonna brin' me.”
“Waaat 'appened ter friendship Johnny? Yer an' oi 'av known each other since we were taller den knee 'igh,” Aaron hissed.
“Aye Aaron, we 'av known each other since we were naw bigger den 'angin' from our mother’s aprons strings,” Johnny nodded. “But i’ve also been a mate ter Joe an' Ned jist as long.”
Aaron wanted to start yelling at him but he could feel the gaze of more than just the police on him. One glance around his room told him that most of the other patrons were glaring at him, just as they had when he had first walked into the place. Aaron huffed before downing the shot. He slammed the glass on the bar. “Gran'!” he huffed, before turning and headed outside. He mounted his horse and started towards home.
He looked out over the range as he rode out of town. He knew that he should be headed somewhere else. He should be out on the Puzzel ranges meeting with Joe. He should have been there a few days ago. He didn’t know why he was avoiding Joe. Then again, he did. How could he explain it all to him? How could he tell Joe that it all started off as a lark? It was just a trick to keep the coppers running in circles while his friends ran about the county. The coppers offered to pay him for the information no matter and it was easy money. Aaron figured that easy money for bad information was better than no money for nothing. Joe wouldn’t blame him for that. In fact Aaron was sure that Joe would have cheered him on.
Then things changed.
Suddenly the coppers wouldn’t leave him alone and his best friend was getting farther and farther away from everything they knew. The gang had the Victoria police running in circles while they were elusive as ever. They often hid right beneath their noses and the coppers were blind to them. And Joe was with Ned, out on the ranges having a good old time. He’d heard more than once how all the lasses were clawing at each other to be the one he smiled at and Aaron was sure that Ned was getting Joe’s cast offs. Cast offs that used to be his.
Aaron growled, mumbling curses under his breath. He couldn’t believe he was actually jealous of Joe’s relationship with Ned, but he was.
“Mates! Ha! That’s a laugh!” he snorted. Joe was his friend, of that he was certain and he always would be, but he hadn’t seen him in so long. Things change with time. It started out as something of a game. The friendship he had with Joe was supposed to be for life. They would drink and smoke and cavort with the lasses. They did everything together. Then Ned got out of prison. It was good for a while but that bastard Fitzpatrick had tried arresting Dan and it all went downhill from there. Joe had gone to see Ned and Dan out on their hideout on Bullock Creek when those blasted coppers got too close at Stringybark. Everything changed that day.
Their friendship had been the world to Aaron. He and Joe had been best mates. They were like brothers. Worked together, bled together and even went to prison together for stealing some meat. Meat that would have scared off the starvation their families were feeling at the time. Now he wasn’t the person Joe was loyal to; that was Ned and that was all there was in the end. Joe was loyal to Ned. Now Joe spent his time with Ned. Riding the ranges with Ned, robbing banks with Ned and spending all of his time… with Ned.
Funny thing was, Aaron knew that if he told Joe what he was doing, they would all have a good old laugh and the gang would even help him come up with fool’s errands to send the coppers on. “Too late ter a go back nigh though isn’t it? So'tiz waaat it 'tiz,” he sighed. With one last look northward he turned his horse and headed towards home. He knew that he should be going the other direction towards Joe so he could talk to him. Tell him what was happening and why he was doing everything he was doing. But then if he did he knew that the coppers who were following him would be seeing Joe too and he couldn’t have that.
He slipped his hand into his coat pocket, his fingers moving over the rumpled page Steve Hart had given him several days earlier and wondered if he was doing the right thing. “Joe 'ill understan'. Joe knows me an' ‘e knows I’d never betray dem.”
As Joe scanned the range once more the kookaburras laughed in the trees overhead, seeming to mock his trust in his friend. There was little to see as the sun sank beyond the horizon turning the landscape to shadows. Sighing he rose to his feet and turned to the path that led up the hill. This was it, the last time he would come here waiting for Aaron to show up. But it wasn’t the last time he would wait for Aaron to explain himself. Joe was still certain that he wasn’t a traitor.
He’d believe that till he died.
With one last glance over his shoulder he headed up the hill. He said nothing when Tom asked him if he still really believed that Aaron hadn’t betrayed them. He only looked at him, staring him down before he mounted his horse. Ned said nothing, knowing all too well the torment that was ripping Joe up inside. Ned had felt that same kind of pain every day since the coppers had arrested his mother and put her in prison for Fitzpatrick’s lies. Instead Ned motioned to Tom to mount up and to keep his trap shut. Doing so they followed in silence as Joe led the way back to their camp. As they got closer, Joe pulled his horse to a stop, his dark eyes scanning the wooded area for any sign that someone may have found them. Ned and Tom rode into camp and Joe glanced back over his shoulder along the long trail, lined with gum trees that would lead him back to the Puzzle range. He half hoped he see Aaron there, riding to meet him, yet it was empty.
“Aaron. Wha ar’ ya doin’?” Joe sighed, turning to ride into camp.