Not Afraid

FourLeaf Clover


Banner by Spkles

I met Joe Byrne once. Oh, I know 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 peace neither.

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 serious to each other, they called him Sugar. Though to be sure right then I thought him as sour as any of them. There was talking and laughing, but he didn’t do much of the latter. There was always some kind of earnest discussion around 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. And afterwards I found out he was, and not above staring back a bit himself. But 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, and some fella was buying it, but he never showed up. It was in the stable across 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 another look at Joe Byrne of course.

After a bit someone said something to him, quiet like, and he looked around, right at me. Well, I know I coloured up, red as anything because of course I 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 and then 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 going to 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 anything for him, that every eye in the place more or less was on him, but if he did, he took no notice. And you know, for all he had that authority, it seemed to me that any one of the men in there than night could have just pushed him over had they a mind to. And perhaps some of the women too.

Maybe that was just me seeing something about him that they didn’t.

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 someone so important, and as it was still half in my mind he might just shoot me anyhow, 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 wanted to laugh at me. Close up, his eyes were red and his nose was running a bit too, and his cheeks looked like the beard hanging off them was too heavy, but when he did that I could see right off that his face had been made for smiling, just not had much call to do it lately, and I thought him more handsome than ever.

“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 then I 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 might 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 right then.

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 doing a fine job of selling Jock, he sort of half turned to me, very solemn this time and said,

“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 to you 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 least I laughed at my friends and neighbours all in awe, and whispering and some of them making up to him and others too scared to breathe, and Joe laughed, well because I suppose it was like a charade with false names and all, a waste of time, and because he knew who he was and maybe found it amusing that anyone would be scared of him. Not when he was so scared inside himself. Scared of 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 privy to his dark imaginings, but he stopped laughing quite abruptly and shook his head 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 much 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 managed to push that to one side in his mind somehow. Or at least look like he did. Or maybe it got to a point where it was so hopeless that there was no reason not to fight, if you see what I mean.

But all that were a few weeks away, and right here and now there I was putting 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 alone touching. He looked at me properly then, like he hadn’t done before.

“You’re Daniel O’Rourke’s girl, aren’t you?”

Well for the life of me I wished he asked me something I could shake me head or 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 circumstances.

“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 was the 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 I’d seen 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 know.”

I suppose that were right too. After all, I needed that money, and if he had 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, for the look of the thing, just as I expected, suggested something a bit lower, but I 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 honour.

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 why 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 looked properly 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 and he looked at me, and Jock shifted uneasily next to us, and I gathered my courage and said,

“Well you know, you keep on asking me all these questions I can only say ‘yes’ to.”

“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 someone who 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 properly and 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 on him and the tobacco too, but his lips were so soft and he kissed me and held me 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 with Dan O’Rourke’s girl out the back of a bar some soon-forgotten night.

I reckon he was the nicest, and the nicest-looking man I ever kissed. And when 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 might have 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, I did remember that just for a few seconds I’d made it all alright for him. Not sick or afraid or pretending any more.

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