For once, she found him almost immediately; crouched before her in a triangle of rough clearing, adjusting his horse’s girth straps. Perhaps it was something in the way the horse shifted its weight, or perhaps he sensed her, but before she could utter a word, he spun around, almost guiltily she found herself thinking, on his haunches, boot toes in the brown dirt, hat low on his forehead, outline fuzzy in the gloom.
A statement, not a greeting.
“Joe,” responded Claire, echoing his flat monotone.
He stood up and removed his hat, not in politeness, but apparently to give him something to twist in his fingers.
She crossed over to him and kissed him on the cheek. He returned the kiss, distractedly, one hand briefly on her arm, his lips reaching awkwardly for the side of her mouth. His familiar scent, the feel of his fingers, the solidness of his presence tugged at her heart, but having thus done his duty in acknowledging her, he turned away, back to his work.
Claire had learned a lot about Joe and also some things about herself since their night in the hotel, so rather than dwell on the implied insult of being treated like, well, like a wife, she absorbed the sulky pout that threatened to appear on her face and instead passed the time until he would unbend towards her by studying the horse.
It was a poor, tired-looking animal with bony haunches and a scraggy neck; very different from the beautiful grey she remembered from her first meeting with Joe. He glanced around, noticed her looking and patted the thin flank.
"Aye, it's a thankless task being a Kelly horse," he remarked.
“Or a Kelly gang member too for that matter,” observed Claire, running a disapproving eye over the collarbones easily visible under Joe’s shirt, the untrimmed undergrowth of curls at the nape of his neck and the shabby clothes.
Joe looked down at himself disparagingly, perhaps wondering if he really did look as ill-fed as his horse. His words, however, were typically dismissive and wry.
“Well, maybe I wouldn’t win no beauty contest, but I reckon you're better placed than most folk to judge whether I’ve me full health or not."
Claire’s eyes rested on Joe's wiry form and the way the rough fabric of his trousers skimmed his muscular legs as he leaned over the horse. She disagreed with him about the beauty contest, but it was otherwise a fair point. In her very personal experience, he normally lacked nothing in the way of either energy or stamina. She risked a giggle and he winked at her before returning his attention to the horse.
Claire and Joe often took a few minutes to settle into a natural rhythm of conversation, and perhaps that was to be expected. After all, he had long since ceased to ask her what she was doing, suddenly appearing in front of him, and from her perspective, the cruel monotony of his life meant that it sounded silly to enquire what he had been up to lately. This time though, there was something different. Joe did not seem displeased to see her, and he was obviously making an effort to appear normal; yet something unspoken, like a pre-storm shift in atmosphere, hung in the air between them, heavy and brooding.
“Where are you off to?” she enquired in an effort to draw him out.
He was quite clearly preparing for a journey, and there was no reason for him to be evasive about it, but without pausing in his endeavours he merely remarked, almost to himself,
“Boots, saddle, to horse and away.”
“Eh?” replied Claire.
“Browning. Did ye not learn poetry at school then?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at her, a faint scathing tone to his voice.
“Obviously not that one,” said Claire, crushed, and Joe, who clearly had no intention of elaborating on his enigmatic answer, nodded and smiled briefly at her as if he’d already forgotten what they were talking about.
Claire grabbed him hard by the shoulder so he was forced to face her, and pushed her fingers into the thick hair at his temples, dragging it away from his face and forcing his attention on her.
“Joe. Something’s the matter, isn’t it? What’s wrong?”
Joe studied her closely for a few moments, chewing at his lip as if mulling over what answer to give. She held his gaze, waiting for his reply, but he said nothing. His face, on the other hand, gradually assumed an expression of bleak despair, and then to her shock, his eyes slowly filled with tears.
Quite what he would have said or done next, Claire never found out because at that moment they were disturbed by the jangling, thudding and rustling of an approaching horseman, and Dan Kelly appeared in the clearing, stooped low over his horse’s neck to avoid the low branches and leading another, heavily laden animal behind him.
“I got it Joe!” he called excitedly, “Or rather Kate did.”
Claire dropped her hand and they both looked around at the newcomer. He straightened in the saddle, taking in the scene. Naturally taken aback to find that Joe was no longer alone, his eager, ruddy face looked momentarily confused.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, as if he’d inadvertently interrupted a private conversation in a busy street, rather than finding that a strangely dressed woman whom he barely knew had mysteriously materialised in this remote spot in the ranges. He dismounted and turned the two horses loose. They immediately wandered to the far side of the clearing and began to graze. The momentary energy Dan had brought with him dissipated into a silence broken only by the sound of teeth tearing at the sparse vegetation. Whatever Dan’s errand had been about, it was apparently not for Claire’s ears. Joe returned to his work, knotting the reins to the saddle and checking the stability of the cargo.
“Hello Dan,” said Claire with a friendly smile.
“Hello…Claire,” said Dan, hesitantly, tipping his hat at her.
“Are you well?”
“I am. Thank ye for askin’. And…yerself?”
“Good. Well, that’s grand then.” He looked to his mate for help, but Joe was now tidying away all trace of a small, dead fire in the centre of the clearing, collecting up charred sticks and dispersing the remains of the ashes with his toe, and appeared oblivious.
“So what was it that Kate managed to get you then?” she added conversationally, aware that he was a far easier target for a confession than tight-lipped Joe.
Dan glanced questioningly at his friend again.
“Nuttin’” he said defensively. Then perhaps realising how evasive this sounded when he had arrived with such a trumpeted announcement only moments before, he added pointlessly, “Just…stuff.”
By now convinced that Dan’s errand and Joe’s distress were connected, Claire crossed the clearing towards the rounded rump of the pack horse. She felt slightly self-conscious – it was none of her business what Dan chose to carry around with him, and he and Joe knew that as well as she did. Besides, whatever she found, be it a rifle, more opium to feed Joe’s increasingly hungry demons or a few sausages for their dinner, what exactly was she proposing to do? And if it wasn’t something that she could immediately see, was she actually going to ransack all their belongings?
As it turned out, there was no need to do anything of the sort. She drew alongside the horse and saw it immediately. A roll of lilac poplin with a drooping little pennant of white crochet work hanging forlornly from one end. She reached out tentatively to finger it as if it might be a hallucination but the rough wool crumpled only too realistically under her touch. There was only one reason she could think of that Dan would have gone out of his way to acquire a set of women’s clothing. She turned back to Joe who had at last stopped what he was doing and was standing watching her, still with the burned sticks in his hand. For once though, Claire hardly noticed him. All she could see before her was what Joe had yet to see – Aaron’s final, non-comprehending expression as Joe cocked the shotgun and took careful aim. Poor, arrogant Aaron whose fatal mistake was to think himself more clever than he really was.
“No!” she said. The word came out as a faint whisper, but there must have been no mistaking her stricken expression.
“What?” asked Joe in a low voice. The inside of Claire’s mouth had gone horribly dry. With difficulty she swallowed and licked her lips. On the edge of her vision she glimpsed a bright green bird alight for a moment on a twig that curved and sagged under its weight. The bird flew off again, soaring up and disappearing into the bowl of sky above them.
“I’ll just….” she heard Dan’s voice tail off in the dawning realisation that there was nowhere he could reasonably excuse himself to.
“Leave you to it,” he finished with a mumble, and struck out purposefully between the trees almost as if he did have somewhere to go.
Claire and Joe each waited for the other to speak.
“You can’t do this Joe,” Claire said finally. “I mean, you mustn’t.”
“Mustn’t what?” enquired Joe.
Claire was swept with an irrational feeling of superstition that speaking the words aloud might somehow remove the potency of the action. Despite everything she knew, there was a lingering hope that he might laugh and tell her she was being silly.
“Kill Aaron,” she croaked, and watched Joe hide his surprise. If he wondered how she knew, he didn't pursue the matter.. He merely paused for a moment’s thought and then told her flatly,
“It’s nothing to do with you. I have no choice. He’d see me – all of us - dead if he could.”
“No he wouldn’t!” cried Claire, stirred to indignation by the injustice of this. “Don’t you think he truly loves you? Maybe this way he thinks he can save you! Had you considered that?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” responded Joe evenly, although she noticed that his knuckles had turned white from the effort of holding so hard onto the sticks in his hand.
“I do know if you do this then the police will come after you and they will kill you.”
“And that would be a new circumstance for us now, would it?” said Joe with heavy sarcasm, and Claire bit her lip.
Joe, apparently no longer concerned with concealing the traces of his presence, dropped the sticks on the floor and wiped his blackened hand on his trouser leg. He crossed the clearing until he was standing by her and the packhorse. Rather than look at her though, he lifted the lead rein and wrapped it intently and neatly around his fist.
“I’m sorry Claire. I have to go now,” he told her, taking good care not to meet her eye. He tugged at the rein and the horse looked up, a mild expression of resentment on its face.
“Why are you being like this?” asked Claire, who had told herself many times that as a visitor in his world and an observer of the developing tragedy, she should avoid visiting as many of her emotional demands on him as possible. Now it had come to it though, it seemed she was as powerless to stop herself as she was to control anything else here.
“So…so cold and distant,” she replied spiritedly, concealing the self-loathing she felt even as she heard the words she spoke.
Then he did stop and pay her closer attention. He dropped the rein and hunched his hands back into his pockets
“I don’t think I know another way to be right now lass,” he told her in a husky, strangled voice. He let the words die on the air between them, then cleared his throat and continued. “I can’t see how’s this can go on for ever, not really. Can you? Running away? D’ye not think there’s a time when it’s right to stop running and stand and fight?”
“But you’ll die,” said Claire desperately, fighting back the tears. She grabbed for his hand and succeeded only in clutching at the worn cuff of his shirt. “You’ll be shot and killed. You all will. It’s not worth it.”
“I’m touched by yer faith in me,” said Joe, smiling faintly with a touch of his old wryness.
“It’s got nothing to do with my faith in you,” she told him. “Any minute now you’ll tell me it’ll be ‘a good old fight’,” she wangled her fingers in quote marks, “But it won’t be. It will just be awful, and you will die. You hear me Joe? You will die.”
Joe regarded her thoughtfully and raised his eyebrows, seeing, apparently, some humour in what she had just said.
“You seem very sure of this,” he said with a smile, wriggling his shirt free of her grip and finally, thankfully, taking her hand properly in his. “Is that the answer to ye then? That ye've been sent to warn me of me evil ways? I can't say ye've behaved much like an angel, and I'm grateful enough for that, but....”
“And if I have, is there anything I could say to stop you?” interrupted Claire.
Joe dropped her hand and the smile and reached under his jacket and into the waistband of his trousers. He pulled out his gun and looked at it for a long moment. Then he cocked the hammer and, taking it by the barrel, offered Claire the handle. A last optimistic ray of sun glinted on the metal barrel.
“What’s that for?” asked Claire, daring to let herself believe for a second that he was surrendering the weapon to her for good.
“Sure there’s something you can do,” he told her. “Go on, take it.” He swung the barrel slightly, proffering the handle a little more insistently. Reluctantly, and only because the butt was nudging her hand, Claire took it. Under her fingers, the wood felt smooth and warm from its habitual place at his side.
“If you truly know there’s no hope, no matter what I do, if ye really believe that, go on then. Couple of seconds it’ll all be over.” When she didn’t respond, he looked down at the ground and snorted with mirthless laughter before continuing. “Pink me right here, save me the time and trouble, aye, save Aaron too and a few coppers for make-weight.”
“Fucking hell Joe! You’re asking me to shoot you?”
“If that’s what ye truly believe, that I’ll be dead soon anyway, why wouldn’t ye? I seem to remember yer a pretty good shot, so if ye can aim here,” he pointed two fingers at his head, “Or here,” at his heart, “So as to get it over with as clean as possible.”
Heedless of the danger, Claire dropped the gun to the floor where it bounced into the dust and spun a little. Joe, for all his suicidal intentions hastily stepped out the way.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then shall I?” he said. “Sure that’s a good thing in some ways. You think I could take me chances with it after all then?”
“For fuck’s sake Joe! Stop it!” cried Claire who no longer knew if she was crying openly or not, and cared even less.
“Not even to save other lives?”
“I said stop it! Joe, please!”
Joe bent down and gingerly retrieved his gun and replaced it under his coat.
“Not as easy a decision as ye might think is it lass?” he remarked pointedly. “Unless ye can offer to take me away with ye, wherever it is you disappear to. How about that one?”
But poor Claire, by now completely distraught, could only shake her head. Even after all this time she had no clear idea of why or how she met up with Joe and knew that trying to find a way to take him back with her was hopeless.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “If I could, I would. But you 've had other chance to go away and you haven't taken them. You wouldn't come anyway.”
Joe touched her chin and she looked up at him. If he was surprised by the curious dark blue streaks running down her face, the blotchy complexion and the odd fibrous lumps of mascara on her cheeks, he didn’t show it.
“I know ye mean well,” he said in a much quieter voice. “And I think ye know how much…it…has all meant to me, but we’ve no business together, you and me. Ye never know, maybe it’ll all work out, but if it doesn’t…” He stopped speaking and looked over her head into the trees. “Well.”
He dipped his head and kissed her, pressing his closed lips to hers, lingering there but devoid of any passionate expression. Claire wrapped her arms around him and hung onto his waist, long after the kiss had finished, absorbing every second as if she could store it for a lifetime of remembering.
“No,” she said into his chest again and again. “No.”
“You take care of yerself now, you hear?” said Joe, gently disentangling himself from her then slapping the side of the pack horse and tugging on the lead rein so that it obligingly clopped around to face the other way. Claire watched in immobile horror as he lead it over to his own horse, made the end fast and then climbed into the saddle. He’d stopped looking at her again, busying himself in detail, checking the stirrups, settling his heels against the horse’s flank and unknotting its reins. He’d left her already.
“C’mon Dan,” he called loudly. “We need to get goin’.”
A moment passed and Dan reappeared between the trees. He swung up onto his own mount, looked at Claire, then at Joe and back to Claire again.
“Will ye be alright?” he asked in a concerned voice, looking about him in the gloomy dusk at the conspicuous absence of any horse or supplies. “Are ye…staying here?”
His question was for both of them, he seemed to be waiting for Joe to answer, but it was Claire who spoke first.
“It’s fine Dan,” she told him, baring her teeth in an impression of a warm smile. “No really. You…” she stepped up to him and stood on tiptoe. He bent down in the saddle and she kissed him on the cheek and squeezed his hand. “You look after yourself.”
“Well, if yer sure,” he said uncertainly looking at Joe again. Joe gave Claire a long look.
“Aye, she knows what she’s doing,” he said finally. “Let’s go.”
And they went.