The moon hung low in the sky, touching the top of Morgan’s Lookout and lighting up the night. Despite the lateness of the hour, the air was still heavy with summer heat, the night sounds drowned out by a chorus of cicadas. Joe sat motionless in the saddle, deep under the shadow of the gum trees, waiting. Eventually the call of a mopoke sounded from nearby and not long after he had responded to it, a figure appeared from the trees, leading a packhorse.
“Sent the traps on a wild goose chase, they won’t bother yer. Charlie here is fine with the load, got another five for yer. There’s some that are askin’ questions mind, where all the ploughs are disappearin’ to. Perhaps look elsewhere if yer need still more, yeah?”
The man passed the bridle to Joe and they shook hands.
“Thanks Paddy. We appreciate all your help.”
“Good luck with it all. Yer know we’re all behind you boys here.”
Paddy slipped back into the shadows and with the faintest pressure of his thigh Joe turned Music around, clicked his tongue to the packhorse and set off back in the direction he had come from a little earlier. With the packhorse the going was a lot slower but he didn’t mind, Music knew the way and he was happy for her to pick her own pace through the bush. He let his thoughts wander while remaining alert to any sound that was out of place in the dark bush around him.
Knights in armour, Ned had said. Invincible. Joe couldn’t quite see it that way. He had a bad feeling about the whole business and how it would end but he was well aware that there was no turning back now. Not for any of them. He wasn’t planning on spending the rest of his life in gaol and that didn’t leave too many other alternatives. Confront the coppers once and for all, gamble on all or nothing and die trying, not with a noose around his neck.
Only a year ago his life had been so different, full of hope and dreams for the future. And then three coppers died at Stringybark Creek and everything changed in an instant and he had to change too. He became an outlaw with a price on his head, hunted like an animal. Bloody Fitpatrick with his lies had set the first stone rolling, it had gathered momentum and now the whole mountain was about to crash down on them all. He tried to believe in the better future Ned was always going on about but it was getting harder and harder. The whiskey and opium helped him make it from one day to the next and the women he held in his arms gave him comfort, but nothing quite touched his heart anymore.
“Joe! Didn’t expect yer back so soon. No trouble then?”
“The traps had business elsewhere it seems so I didn’t need to pass myself off as a farmer off to do some ploughin’. Take care of Charlie and his load will yer, I’ll see to Music and go fer a dip in the creek, am sweatin’ like a pig.”
The cold water was soothing against his hot skin as he waded into the creek and found a deeper spot where he could submerge himself. He stayed under water until his lungs were about to burst and then floated on the surface, looking up at the stars and trying to empty his mind of all thought. For a while he became one with the night around him, and when he strode out of the water there was renewed determination in his steps. A man can but follow his destiny.