He stood silent and alone, surveying the wind-whipped valley and contemplating just what turns his life had taken to get him to this point. The sweat around his body clung to the shirt in places, billowing white surrender to the cold. They would be here soon enough, the coppers. Hare and his band of no hopers, crashing through the undergrowth, loud and unconcerned that they could be heard in New South Wales, never mind just down in the valley. He sank down onto his haunches and cast an eye down over the trees to where just a thin plume of smoke emerged, wobbled and was whisked away. Another night stretched out in front of him, listening to their bravado, while he just watched. Don’t come Joe.
He could take the bad mouthing around the bars in Beechworth, the sitting alone when no one wanted to be seen talking to him, the whispering behind hands. He could even take this, night after night, watching the Byrne house and having the coppers on his back. What did he care? As if he would tell them anything they really needed to know! Sell out his mates? They must think he was stupid.
They had ridden together for as long as he could remember, him and Joe. Until now. Now, well Joe was off being an outlaw with them Lloyds and the Quinns wasn’t he? Riding round with that Ned Kelly acting like he was the bloody King of Australia.
But they had promised him, Hare had promised him, got the Commissioner to swear to it he had. Promised him that Joe wouldn’t hang. So Aaron played their game.
“Ah there you are Sherritt, surveying your land are you?” A laugh at the back of straggling band of Victoria’s finest had Aaron turn round quickly and mutter something he hoped they didn’t hear.
Then he put on his usual face. “Tonight’s the night Mr Hare, I can feel it in my bones. Tonight you are going to be lucky. Will we take a party down by the stockade like always, just to be sure?” It was a farce they played every evening and Aaron let it be. Joe and the gang were miles away, enjoying a whiskey or two no doubt, and just for a moment he smiled. At least he was doing his bit, keeping the coppers off their trail. Giving Joe some freedom. Chances were he might even be visiting the Imperial, or the Commercial, finding himself some warmth to take with him. Aye a woman to warm his bones. Aaron shivered just a touch and put the contrast from his mind.
Behind him the bustle continued as the coppers set themselves up for the night in the cave, heavy in oilskin cloaks and big boots, already half drunk on the regulation grog that was meant to keep out the cold. Aaron just sat on a big grey rock and watched over the Woolshed like he was the only one that the moon was shining on.
In those days past it had seemed like there would always be two, and sometimes that it was just them two. They would ride for days and not see a soul if they didn’t want. They ‘washed over the land like spring rain’, that’s what Joe had said once. He always had a way with the words. Joe would whoop at the sky and ride harder than any one he had ever seen. Fearless. Well, there were none of them that anymore.
Aaron, well he was the watchman, the guard, that’s what he told himself in the night, those times when he felt lost in this story he had no part in the starting of. Truth was you couldn’t see Ma Byrnes selection from the mouth of the cave. You had to be where he was now, on the flat ledge, so that you could peer through the trees. Clever. Least he had thought so when he suggested it over the large desk in Hare’s office, giving the Superintendent the impression that he had more information than he in fact did, keeping him interested. Now he was occupying a whole troop of them for night after night, out of harms way, and of course being paid the price of a few beers. Albeit ones he drunk on his own.
He was sure that Joe would be impressed when he found out about the double bluff. Found out just how much Aaron would risk.
“You must really want that reward Sherritt! To be sat out there in the wind so long. What? You scared one of us will catch the bastard and leave you high and dry?” a discarded tin can hit the rock underneath him and Aaron clenched his large fists.He gritted his teeth and kept his eyes forward as he felt the movement of a man behind him.
“Pay them no mind Aaron lad, we know the arrangement don’t we?”
Fuck off Hare. “Of course Mr Hare. You know me, pass on any information I get, that’s me.” Yeah and some of it straight from Ned’s mouth, delivered with a smile, as arranged.
He felt a kick in his guts as he remembered the last time they had all met. When he felt like he was one of the gang. Joe had beamed at him, been proud of his mate, and passed him the bottle back and forth while they sat making up fancy schemes for dancing round the coppers. Joe and him could talk about the old times, laugh about things Hart and the Kelly’s never knew about. Only now they were dancing for their lives and not to any tune that was familiar.
Hare pulled out the glasses he had in his coat and made a play of surveying the landscape. Aaron wiped his eyes, he was tired.
“Hold on, there is a man coming down the valley!” The shocked voice of the Superintendent had Aaron leap up and almost grab the binoculars from his grasp. “I say! Steady on Sherritt!” but he seemed willing to give them up all the same.
Fumbling a little with the focus Aaron alternately held them to his eyes and squinted into the darkness, his heart pounding with sure knowledge that he couldn’t say out loud. Joe what are yer doing? He would know that figure, that walk, anywhere. He knew the sound of Joe’s footsteps. Why didn’t yer tell me you were coming?
“Who is it? Speak man!” Hare’s excitement had several of the coppers now jostling for places on the ledge, their opinions as varied as the sizes of their beards as they watched the figure move languorously toward the shack.
“Ah that will be Paddy coming home fer his tea I should say, you can tell it’s not Joe” All the same he clung on to the binoculars tight, hoping to slip them into his pocket at the first opportunity. Aaron could feel his pulse thudding against his temple and forced a smile onto his face. “Shall I go and check fer yer? If you go rushing in after will o’ the wisp there, we will be all done for here, I would say” a flush of cold emptied through his body at the thought. “And you don’t want to end up with egg on yer face when it turns out to be old Scotty from up there in the hills after a bit of butter eh?”
He tried to keep himself from running, his legs usually so sure of themselves seeming to buckle a little in his haste, belying him to the pairs of eyes watching his back disappear down into the valley. Approaching the homestead set off the dogs and the geese, he could almost hear Joe pulling his pistol. Nothing for it but to bang on the door and hope not to get shot there and then “Mrs Byrne! It’s Aaron, Mrs Byrne” he forced himself to look back toward the cave, to acknowledge their presence, while he listened to the bolt being drawn.
“Aaron, what are you doing here this time of night? Kate’s a’ bed” Dark suspicious eyes peered into his face and passed by him into the paddock, whatever his answer was she was going to decide for herself anyway. “Well don’t just stand there letting in the cold, inside with yer” She had hardly shut the door before Joe was in the middle of the room, his face lighting up with a grin
“Aaron! Well there’s a turn up…what brings you here?” Joe embraced his mate as his mother stood at the table, rewrapping the meat “Sit down, will yer have a drink? Christ it is good to see yer”
There was no time to sit and talk, no time to share a drink, no time to explain what the hell he was doing there, no time to explain how he knew. “There’s coppers up the hill, you have to get out of here” And then the lie “I seen their tracks, fresh ones, thought I could hear them as I was passing. You got to go.”
“What? Don’t be daft now! What would they be doing up there?…” But his face was changing already, a line of a frown as his mind began to fly, his arm already in his jacket. “Did they see yer, you think?”
“I dunno, I just saw the tracks, heard something…” his mouth was drying up. “Fucks sake, just get out of here! Out the back I should say…”
“What were you doing up there yerself Aaron? And how did you know Joe was here anyways?” Mrs Byrne, well she never missed a trick in her life.
“Checking on the horses, there’s a couple of them I got hidden up there, it’s a cold night. And I happened to see Music, so I guessed is all” Jesus, just shut up. “I need to talk to yer Joe, but not now eh?” He couldn’t stand it much longer, the way they were looking at him, Joe as he gathered up a piece of bread, stuffing it in his pocket and already half gone through the door. Her while she leaned on the table, resentful perhaps of this sudden intrusion and watching him close as ever.
“How did you know it was coppers anyhow if you only saw tracks?”
Joe shook his head just a bit and sighed heavy “Ah sure you can smell them from a mile away isn’t that right? Will yer come with me then Aaron, you can tell me what it is that’s on that mind of yours” He was sharp Joe, perhaps he got it from his mother, but either way he knew there was something not said.
The silence hurt Aaron’s ears. The coppers might be here any moment, bursting through the door, impatient for blood, maybe they already were outside the shack, surrounding it; maybe he was sending Joe out to be shot on sight, and maybe he could still save him by playing this game “I can’t, I just can’t. Look will yer go now?” He put his body in the way of the front door, holding out his hand like they always did, just a touch to make it solid, but saying a clear goodbye.
The back door closed quietly and he tried to breathe. No gunfire, no shouts. Thank Christ. Joe was away. “The mining races will give him cover, he can circle back round get his horse. It’ll be alright now” he needed to fill the room with something other than her stare.
“What are you up to Aaron?”
He swallowed hard “Just looking out for Joe, that’s all”
Back at the cave he clenched his teeth, and for the third time insisted “I told yer Mr Hare! It was just nobody.” Returning to the ledge he stood silent and alone, surveying the wind-whipped valley and contemplating just what turns his life had taken to get him to this point