A chook’s startled screech filled the early morning air.****
Trails of smoke curling from the shack’s chimneys contrasted sharply with the blue sky and the promise of another dry, sweltering day in the Woolshed Valley.
The chicken swinging freely from his hand, Yong-a Chinese man in his early twenties, disappeared around the back of his hut; the dead bird would feed a few for lunch after a hard mornings work mining for gold.
Jiao returned to her task, tea leaves steeping in the boiled water, the aroma of green cha clearing her mind and bringing her thoughts back to the dream she had last night…lots of shouting, dark shapes flying past, a loud rushing noise and her heart pumping in fear…and then it was him, the one that captured her heart. His image then fading away…
Her mouth formed a petite bow as she blew on the hot cha. Silky black strands of hair swished forward onto her cheek and she routinely tucked them behind her ear. Her eyes slipped shut as she thought of him once more. Dark curls, expressive eyes that held her trapped, she could barely breathe when he looked at her that way. He would return to her soon and she quelled the rising excitement at the thought of him sauntering like some ghostly vision out of the bush with that easy grin and hands in his pockets. Her mind now sought his touch-those hands and lips seeking out the intimate parts of her, warm breathe on her tingling body as she arched against him. Jiao flicked the fan open, expertly fanning her hot face-despite the chill in the hut. Taking a few slow breaths she found calmness again and her hand reached out for the photo of him.
The thin curtain in the doorway twitched “the chicken here for you to prepare Jiao!” Yong’s voice snapped her out of her reverie. The clock crashed on the hard earth, its insides clanging, the photo spilling out onto the dirt floor…as her small cry reached Yong’s ears.
Larger hands now replaced the picture of the handsome young man, the glass had cracked but the clock was still ticking. Yong pulled his younger sister into a warm hug. “Sorry I startled you! I miss him too but you must not hope too much Jiao…he is a wanted man and as time goes by it may be too dangerous for him to return here.” Jiao hid the fear in her eyes and leaned on her big brother’s shoulder, her dream more vivid than ever but she did not share this with him. She loved Yong but he did not understand. No one knew how deep her love was for this man that she too wanted…It was a relief that her parents were not at the same camp as it was most likely they would never have allowed it.
He smiled at his younger sister, the lines on his face deep crevasses that all men that worked the earth shared. Slipping the picture to Jiao, he squeezed her hand and was gone. She set the side table’s red cloth straight once more, her slim fingers running along the photo frame’s edge before kissing the broken glass that held the face of her lover.
The cave floor had proved to be a rough nights sleep and Ned seemed particularly grumpy this cold morning, tripping over Steve’s boots on his way to the call of nature. “For fucks sake!” and then kicking the remains of a sardine tin into the cave-this was all it took for Joe to realize he should slip away now before plans were changed. The mood Ned was in, they could be made to go in an instant and he had to see his Chinese friends, they would get him what he wanted…but it Jiao he needed.
Dan spoke over Steve’s snores “Don’t be long Joe, yer know how he gets” his head flicking after Ned “We don’ wanna have to come and get yer” his grin making it obvious he wouldn’t mind in the slightest
“Aye, sure yer don’t…if I’m late just leave without me. Bullock Creek…I know me way there in the dark” Parcel under his arm, he was gone before Ned had time to button his trousers.
Plucking chickens was a job for strong hands and will power. Nothing repulsed Jiao more than the smell of wet feathers in hot water and her nose wrinkled as she yanked at them, a flurry of brown and white wet fluff about her. Her mind was deep on the job as she knew there would be trouble if she didn’t have the lunch ready by the time the men returned. Perspiration ran down the side of her face as her fingers tried to grip the feathers.
“Jiao…jóusàhn” *good morning* her heart skipped a beat as he whispered the greeting in her ear, cool hands finding her waist.
“Joe!” Dropping the plucked chicken in the tub she flung wet arms around him, lips covering his cheek with fast but tender kisses. “Ngo gua zhu lei Joe *I miss you*…and I get so lonely” His arms were about her slight figure as he spun her around with ease.
“I have something fer yer Jiao” Her eyes brightened when she saw the package.
She picked a cloth up and wiped her face. ”I just get chicken soup on for lunch, I won’t be long.”
“I’ll come back…yer welcome to open it while I’m away, I have something I must go do.” Hands cupped her face as his eyes swept over her, for a moment it seemed he might say something more, but he resisted, instead his lips covered hers, warm and sensual as soft curls brushed her cheek.
Lifting a red silk cheongsam out of the brown packaging, Jiao squealed with delight. No one had ever given her something so beautiful and she hurried to undo her apron, fingers trembling as she tugged at the strings. Her slip of a dress quickly removed; finally she stood in her undergarments. Hands smoothed down the bright material, tracing the hand-made lace flowers embroidered into the soft cloth as it lay on the bed covers. It felt cool on her body as it slid over her curves and she smiled a little at the side split which came half way up her thigh. The buttons were shaped into tiny white frangipanis with a single pearl as the centre and climbed all the way to her throat where the collar highlighted her slender neck. She re-tied her hair into a bun and pinned red rhododendrons from a vase on top to complete the look.
“You look amazing my love” Joe was leaning on the bedroom doorframe, his face soft and smiling, and she knew then what he had gone to do-what freed him from his anxiety and why his body was now so relaxed. Her head tilted in sudden shyness to know that he had been watching without her knowledge. The dark strand of hair escaped down her cheek and his hand caught hers as she moved to swipe it away. “Allow me…”
Slowly he stroked her pink tinged cheek, his fingers eventually hooking the piece of hair and threading it back behind her ear before clasping her hand once more. Kissing her fingers, he led her out to the living room and twirled her around, his eyes sparkling in the soft light. “Is a grand fit Xiao Jiao…do you like it?”
“The dress is so beautiful, thank you…but how long you stay Joe? I miss you too much and I worry…” Sadness fleetingly transformed her genteel face. “Yong says….”
“Don’t worry my ‘pretty one’” Jiao blushed at his use of her name in his own words. He pulled her close“I’m here now aren’t I? Who knows what the day will bring but I’m willing to make the most of it. I don’t wish to cause yer any worry lass but I find I cannot stay away from you either. I need yer now more than ever…” Soft Irish tones mixed with his homeland tongue held her full attention. He took a deep breath
“I love you Jiao.”
Dark eyes blinked back tears and the smile he received was the reaction he was hoping for. “Oh…góh oi néih too Joe” Just to see her so happy at those words, he wouldn’t have asked for more, somehow that would have sustained him. Then the rush of ecstasy as her shapely mouth found his and small hands that had some strength to them, pulled at his waistcoat buttons. Joe groaned into her as she pushed his shirt up, his skin relishing her touch and hungering for more. Laying her across the small width of the table, his hands ran over her body that melted to his touch, trying to find a way under the silky folds. He was breathing heavy now as she unknotted the flowery buttons, revealing her delightfully smooth skin to him. His kisses trailed down her breast finding her nipple dark and erect as his lips closed over it sucking it hard into his mouth.
Somewhere out in the bush a long low whistle interrupted the proceedings.
There was no ignoring the warning signal from Ned.
“Deuim̀hjyuh Jiao, *sorry* I have to leave but I will return when I can.” The sun now streaming in on them he reluctantly pulled her dress closed.
Jiao nodded concealing her sadness at him going so soon, she had intended to speak with him about her dream and how could she help all of them but there wasn’t a thing she could do as any delay now could risk his capture.
His finger ran under her chin, lifting her to look at him, the sweet scent of flowers intoxicating as he drew his breath in “Believe me Jiao, I want nothing more than to stay with you” She believed him.
Long eyelashes touched her cheek, his kiss lingering as another; even longer whistle pierced the atmosphere.
Carefully avoiding the mine pits that were dotted about and hiding behind huts, Ned and Joe in time scrambled along one of the water races that the Chinese used for their mining operations in the surrounding area. Once they reached the relative safety of a bush thicket, Joe and Ned watched as coppers they did not recognize went through the Chinese huts. There was much shouting and anger as the men knocked items over and upended tables, chairs, and kicked bags of rice.
Joe gritted his teeth…if they so much as…looked at her.
Ned sensed Joe’s tension “Yong will watch out for her but that was too damn close for you Joe! Luckily Dan spotted them riding in. We have to get the hell outta here!”
They made their way unseen back to the cave and mounting their horses they quickly moved through the trees and around rocks down the other side of the range, eventually reaching clear land and galloping the long distance to the Wombat Ranges.
Home for now was a reinforced log cabin by a stream in thick bush called Bullock Creek. Ned and the boys had been running a whisky still at the same time as panning for gold and had been drinking far more than usual. For Joe it numbed the loneliness of spending night after night in the bush with his mates rather than in Jiao’s gentle arms and at times the guilt hit him hard but he would not risk returning there yet…for her own protection as much as the boys and himself. At night they stayed up all hours playing cards & drinking-and later, lying wrapped in his blanket, Joe would let the opium take his mind there…memories of sweet kisses, soft hands and the scent of flowers in her hair.
Three weeks later, heavy rain and storms beat the land of North Eastern Victoria forcing Ned, Joe and the boys to abandon Bullock Creek and head for drier ground.
After days of heavy rain, Reedy Creek had become a river and had claimed several lives of the Chinese community as the strong currant swept them down stream, and their attempts to grasp anything were futile in the raging torrent. Some of the miners had been speaking of it in Beechworth and so the word spread. Joe and Ned had come as soon as they had news of the disaster. Yong was waiting at the edge of the bush for them that moonlit evening.
One look at his face and Joe feared the worst. “Yong! Is Jiao alright?” his face pale in the moonlight.
“I sorry Joe…no one could help her…or any of them. The river too strong and they all gone…”
Joe dropped to his knees as shock and emptiness gnawed at him from every angle. Yong handed Ned a small framed picture taken of Jiao only a week earlier. She had gone to Beechworth and had the photo done as a gift for Joe.
Ned hugged the man “I’m sorry Yong, is a terrible thing fer sure…if there’s anything we can do…” He crouched beside Joe his voice gentle “F uck I'm sorry Joe...here, Yong has something for yer” It hit him hard to see his best mate in such anguish and he pulled him to his feet, embracing him. Joe shuddered with silent tears, his jaw clenching and unclenching as he sought to make sense of it. God he should have come back sooner! She had not deserved this for fucks sake! Why hadn’t he been here to save her? He should have warned her about the river.
“No…AHH FUCKING JESUS… NO!!” His voice hoarse with emotion as he yelled to the night, his body slouching on to Ned once more with grief as his words faded in the cool air.
Holding him tight, Ned squeezed his shoulders “I’m sorry Joe…ah Christ is a real shame it ‘tis, she’s been taken from you too soon, I am sorry. There was nuthin’ you could have done fer her. Don’t go blaming yerself.”
He pulled away“I wasn’t here fer her Ned when she needed me. When I needed her she…she was always there you know? Always waiting like and she wanted to help us…” His hands shook as he rolled a smoke and lit it.
“I know mate, she was like one of them angels on earth…here…” He put his hand out.
Taking the photo from Ned’s hand, Joe stared at the beautiful girl. Her red silk cheongsam hugging her body, hair pinned up tidily with small elegant clips, her hand holding the fan just so…He traced the edge of the frame with his fingers before kissing the glass of his lover now gone from his world. Jiao would not be in his arms tonight or ever again.
As time goes by…all he could hold on to were dreams of what could have been.