I met Joe Byrne once. Oh, I
there’s a lot of folk claim that, and some of them are right.
But I reckon if
all of them were, he’d not have had any time to be an outlaw.
Nor a moment’s
I didn’t know it was him in the hotel. Some other name that I
forget was told
to me, but the men that sat drinking with him, for all they talked so
to each other, they called him Sugar. Though to be sure right then I
him as sour as any of them. There was talking and laughing, but he
much of the latter. There was always some kind of earnest discussion
him, and I don’t suppose it were about the price of cattle. I
should say, I
wasn’t often in that bar – it weren’t
that kind of a place – but even so I’d
seen him there once or twice before my brother told me.
“That’s Joe Byrne.”
Well, I - well everyone - knew who that was. I stared and stared at
him, and I
don’t think he knew, but my brother did and he nudged me and
asked did I want
to get myself shot. I didn’t think a man they called Sugar
would shoot a woman
for staring at him. He were that handsome he must have been used to it.
afterwards I found out he was, and not above staring back a bit
even if he wasn’t going to shoot me for it, I
didn’t want other people noticing
I stared, so I looked away a bit more.
I was in there that night, funny enough, because I had a horse to sell,
some fella was buying it, but he never showed up. It was in the stable
the road and I was annoyed that I’d have to pay for that and
still take it home
with me again. So I wasn’t very happy. Just sat there with
Jim and thought the
evening a fine waste of time. Other than now and again when I stole
look at Joe Byrne of course.
After a bit someone said something to him, quiet like, and he looked
right at me. Well, I know I coloured up, red as anything because of
thought they’d said I’d been staring at him. He
nodded, to the man and at me,
then he got up and started to walk across the room. Being shot there
began to feel like a better choice than having him ask me what
I’d been staring
at, but Joe, well, it wasn’t a choice he were going to give
me. He was taller
than a lot of the other men there – he’d maybe a
good six inches on Jim and
best part of a foot on me. The way everyone watched to see what he was
do, you’d a’ thought he was a powerful built man
too, but to me he looked sick
and ill, like he’d lost a lot of weight quite suddenly. I
don’t know if he knew
that people cowered around him or waited about to see if they could do
for him, that every eye in the place more or less was on him, but if he
took no notice. And you know, for all he had that authority, it seemed
that any one of the men in there than night could have just pushed him
they a mind to. And perhaps some of the women too.
Maybe that was just me seeing something about him that they
Anyway, when he got up to me he nodded again and pointed behind him.
“That man,” he said in a voice that was so gentle
it surprised me no end, “That
man says you have a horse here for sale.”
I nodded back, too frightened right then to speak. That
wasn’t all his doing,
if he’d come upon me on the road and I’d not known
who he was, well, I’ve
always had a tongue in me head, but everyone else acted like he was
important, and as it was still half in my mind he might just shoot me
what with the staring and all, it seemed safer to keep it buttoned.
He smiled then, well, partly he smiled at me and partly I think he
laugh at me. Close up, his eyes were red and his nose was running a bit
and his cheeks looked like the beard hanging off them was too heavy,
he did that I could see right off that his face had been made for
not had much call to do it lately, and I thought him more handsome than
“I won’t bite you,” said he, very amused.
“But do you think it would be
possible to show it me?”
I nodded again, because that seemed the right response, but I thought
mightn’t be so afraid to talk to him after all. And I could
feel Jim next to
me, just dying to butt in because, after all I was just his sister and
say something stupid. Though not as stupid as ‘here, take the
horse for free’
which is what I reckon were the words burning on Jim’s lips
So I ignored him, and me and Joe, off we went to look at the horse.
He didn’t say nothin’ else until we crossed the
road, and then, maybe because I
was silent too at a time when he might have been expecting me to be
fine job of selling Jock, he sort of half turned to me, very solemn
“You know me don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, because if I’d nodded
again he might have thought I was dumb.
And ‘yes’ also because he had these kind of
piercing eyes that would take a
falsehood right off you and hold it up for what it was and give it back
again, and all without him having to say one word. I might have finally
accepted I wasn’t getting shot, and I might have thought he
was so ill and
tired that close up, truth be told, he didn’t seem much of a
threat to no-one,
but even so I couldn’t look him in the face and lie.
“And so does everyone in the bar I suppose?”
“Yes,” I said again. Well, I didn’t know
for sure that everyone knew, but from
the way all those eyes were on him to see what he’d do next,
fair enough it
must have been most of them.
Then he laughed, and I laughed too, because it was funny really. At
laughed at my friends and neighbours all in awe, and whispering and
them making up to him and others too scared to breathe, and Joe
because I suppose it was like a charade with false names and all, a
time, and because he knew who he was and maybe found it amusing that
would be scared of him. Not when he was so scared inside himself.
what he’d become and what they thought he’d be
next. Scared of being caught and
hanged and going to hell. Not that he said that or that I was somehow
his dark imaginings, but he stopped laughing quite abruptly and shook
and looked at the ground, and muttered to himself,
“Christ Almighty we are fucked.”
And it’s hard to describe, but the way he said it, it
weren’t like he thought
someone in the bar would run and tell the police he were there, it were
bigger than that. Like, if they’re all depending on me, we
might as well all
pack up and go home now.
He were very brave after, when it all came to a head, so I suppose he
to push that to one side in his mind somehow. Or at least look like he
maybe it got to a point where it was so hopeless that there was no
to fight, if you see what I mean.
But all that were a few weeks away, and right here and now there I was
my hand on his arm, like that would make everything alright for him,
not to be
sick or afraid or pretending any more.
He were a bit surprised at that. Well, right enough as all
I’d done so far was
nod at him and say two words, not bold enough for whole sentences, let
touching. He looked at me properly then, like he hadn’t done
“You’re Daniel O’Rourke’s girl,
Well for the life of me I wished he asked me something I could shake me
say no to, just for a change, but it wasn’t to be.
“Aye, I am,” I agreed, the best display of a wide
vocabulary in the
“Best show me this horse then, Miss
O’Rourke,” he said, and I realised we’d
been standing by the stable, both lost in thought, for a while now.
“How much are you wanting for it?” he asked when
he’d finished running his big
hands over Jock’s fetlocks and talking quietly to him so as
Jock let him look
in his mouth without so much as fidgeting.
I’d heard tell that the Kelly’s were the biggest
horse thieves in the colony of
Victoria, well, until they took up the rest of it, and that Joe Byrne
cleverest thief of all. Who but me ma would have blamed me if
I’d just let him
take it there and then? So what with his reputation, and the pistol
under his long drover’s coat, not to mention the way I was
beginning to want to
make things better for him – well, it was almost a surprise
to be asked.
He saw that too because his next words were,
“I’ll give yer the right price. We pay our way you
I suppose that were right too. After all, I needed that money, and if
other money from those bloody banks, well why make a poor family
poorer? I was
glad Jim weren’t there because he’d have made Joe
take the horse, thrown in the
saddle and a bag of oats too I shouldn’t wonder.
Anyway, he was safe and sound in the bar, so I named me price, and Joe,
look of the thing, just as I expected, suggested something a bit lower,
wasn’t about to let Jock go for that, so we hedged about a
bit and were near
enough meeting in the middle when he smiled and said,
“I’ll meet your price, cash, seal the deal now, if
you throw in a kiss.”
Well, there were men I knew who, if they said that, I’d
a’ laughed in their
faces, and others where I’d a’ marched right off,
and I suppose I could have,
maybe fetched Jim, although the way he’d stood in the bar
with his mouth
hanging open when Joe spoke to me, he’d a been more likely to
offer up all the
rest of me too as a sacrifice to the cause, rather than defend my
Joe’s voice were so gentle though, and it was so sweet the
way he said it, how
could I be angry? It was round about then, I suppose, that I worked out
they called him Sugar.
So as you can probably guess, I didn’t march off and fetch
anyone, and I didn’t
laugh or slap him for his trouble, and I don’t think I even
outraged. I hope that didn’t disappoint him. For the truth
was, deep inside and
a long way from my lips, I knew that I’d have met his worst
offer, a month’s
credit on top, on the same terms.
He was waiting for me answer, and if I’d said no, that would
have been accepted
and we would have carried on reaching our agreement. I looked at him
looked at me, and Jock shifted uneasily next to us, and I gathered my
“Well you know, you keep on asking me all these questions I
can only say ‘yes’
“And was that another?” he asked, just checking,
and I gave him another one of
those bloody nods.
Then he put his hands on my arms. They were surprisingly warm for
didn’t look so well, maybe the whiskey he’d been
drinking helped a bit. But I
didn’t have time to think about that too long because he bent
his head and our
noses banged and he found the side of my mouth and then found it
he kissed me. Well, if I thought he’d sounded sweet when he
was talking, there
were far more sweetness in the kiss. A barrel of – well,
sugar, I suppose.
There was the tickle of his moustache, and the smoky taste of the grog
and the tobacco too, but his lips were so soft and he kissed me and
like he had to be careful I wouldn’t break. Aye and like it
was really me he
was kissing and thought something of, and not a cheeky moment snatched
O’Rourke’s girl out the back of a bar some
I reckon he was the nicest, and the nicest-looking man I ever kissed.
he was done – far too soon to my way of thinking –
he winked at me and smiled
ever so slowly and thanked me. I think he meant it too.
Poor Jock, I didn’t do him much of a favour that night. I
hope he enjoyed his
time as Joe’s packhorse, for he was one of the horses the
coppers shot at the
Inn to stop the gang getting away. Maybe if he could have known, he
been proud to be a part of it all. As for Joe, it’s not true
to say I never saw
him again. Not exactly, but I won’t go into that. I did cry
for him, well for
all of them and the rest of us, meself too, but when the tears stopped,
remember that just for a few seconds I’d made it all alright
for him. Not sick
or afraid or pretending any more.