|I can’t say as I had ever slept outside
before, though I suppose the way that the wind comes through the cracks
in the walls back home I might as well have, but anyways there I was
waking up in the arms of an outlaw, and besides an ache in me hip from
the hardness of the ground, I was smiling before I even opened me eyes.
His shoulder the best pillow I had ever had, his body the best cover,
and it felt like the land was all around me. Cold wind and hard ground
and a sky so big it could drown you in blue.
Aaron was already heating a pan of water to brew some tea that he got from the Chinese fellas, though I could hear Steve and Dan saying as how there weren’t gonna touch that stuff, they didn’t want to end up all glassy eyed and slow. Aaron said they was daft buggers and already slow as it was, which made Joe laugh and roll onto his back. “Will yer bring some over here, mate?”
“Lost the use of yer legs, have ye?” But Aaron was smiling all the same, leaning over us to hand him a cup, “but not the use of your cock though, by the looks of her.”
I can’t quite describe it, and for all the fact that it had nothing to do with Ned, I noticed him from the corner of my eye pulling his jacket tighter as Aaron said it, like the wind just blew through the grass bringing a chill with it, and for the first time I saw just the edge of something else that until then I hadn’t even guessed at. Well anyhow Joe made light of it, told Aaron to eff off, and drank his tea but there was more between these men that I would only find out about later.
Plans was being made while we sort of woke up to ride south and distribute some of that money that the bank of New South Wales had kindly donated to the needy and mostly deserving poor. Ned was anxious to engage the services of a lawyer to plead his mother’s case, but Joe were ranting on about how Ned was a fool to trust these people, had he not learnt that from that bastard Cameron, who were someone in the government supposed to be looking into their grievances and who now was struck dumb as a possum in a pie.
“You need to know who your friends are, ain’t that right Joe?” Aaron was speaking quieter than I had ever heard him, and the hand that I was holding went rigid all of a sudden.
“Come on Evie, you need to get back to Jerilderie.” He never answered Aaron, he ripped everything out of you, standing there, his brows tangled together and his face hard as stone. All I wanted was to be able to make him smile.
There were quick arrangements as to where they was to meet later, and Joe was saddling up the horse while I watched the faces of those men that just the night before had been all aglow in the fire, the morning light showed up more and that’s the truth. Ah well maybe it was just another side to them, I had seen what they could have been and now I was looking at what they was—cold, hungry and been away from home too long. Trouble was that there weren’t no place in the towns they could stay now. The countryside was theirs, all of them being experienced bushmen, but now you could feel the winter was coming on fast.
The further we got from the camp I could feel his hard edges grow softer behind me, his body curving round mine as we rode in silence back to Jerilderie. I tell ye I put it out of me mind as quickly as I could that he was gonna leave me again, because whatever else was waiting round the corner, he was there now, and instead of thinking about me cold bed once he’d gone, I made meself feel his thighs round mine and his chest against me back and the brush of his chin against me neck, willing me body and me soul to remember what it felt like to be tight as I could next to Joe Byrne. I think I got what it meant to be his.
He weren’t asking for tears, though him and I both knew there would be bucket loads. He was asking for Evie Mc Bride to be herself and at the same time be his, not because she was weak but quite the opposite, and whatever else those bastards were gonna do to the Kelly Gang, I resolved there and then that’s what I could do. So when he stopped the horse, I turned round as best as I could and kissed him hard so as he would remember it and keep him warm. I slipped down from that saddle and reached me hand up to hold his.
“I will be back, Evie.”
“I know that ye will,” and I watched him kick that horse into running before I let tears run down me face.
I was still wiping the back of me hand across me face when I walked into the Royal Mail. “And what do you think you are doing here?” Mrs. Cox had her hands on her hips behind the bar. At first I looked around to see if she was talking to me.
“It’s 12, Mrs. Cox, I am here to work me shift.”
I was half out of me coat before she caught my arm, none too gently I might add. “I don’t think so, Evie McBride. Skipping work on the pretence of being ill and then stopping out all night.” That was it, I was sacked, and in the next half hour I was sat on the step of the Royal Mail, a small bundle next to me and no place to go, no job, no money, and no Joe. I sat there for a good while without thinking at all before the cold air made me shudder. The Woolpack. I decided to go to the Woolpack.
They had no jobs going, but Mary Jordan who ran the place, well maybe that was a bit of an overstatement of the facts, she let it run itself more or less with the result that it was the roughest bar in town, well Mary said as I could share me mate Rosie’s room while I looked for work. At least at the Woolpack I had something like friends, the Kelly’s had some sympathisers amongst Mary and her regulars.
The next two weeks I just about did enough to feed meself, no chance of sending any home and I didn’t want to worry them anyways so I just kept me peace, a few hours here and there at the laundry, some work I never got paid for in the big house, but at least it were warm and I stuffed me face with bread. The promise of more work always held out as a string, to keep yer begging them for favours, I toed the line, but well I had no choice.
Everyday I tried to get sight of a newspaper see if they had printed Ned’s letter, but there was nothing, no reference to it at all. All I saw was coppers coming and going to the Gill’s place and a big empty space where the people of Australia should have heard the true story of the Kelly Gang.
The nights after Rosie had finished working we spent under as many clothes and covers as we could find, on account of the weather creeping in under the window frame and round the door, talking and telling tales, laughing and making each other blush, so by the end of it Rosie knew about as much as I did about Joe and the Kelly’s, and I swear she was the one who heard him.
“What did yer say that bird was Evie? A curlew was it now?” My nod made her smile.
“Well now there is either a whole flock of them or an outlaw outside this window for sure.”
What I saw when I climbed out the window onto the balcony took me by surprise even more. Joe and Ned were both at the back of the Woolpack, still on horseback and with the sort of looks that would wither even an acacia tree.
He didn’t even get off his horse. “I can’t stay Evie lass. That bastard Gill, he didn’t print the letter, he gave it to the coppers. I hope its gone to Hare himself, but no other bugger will get to read it now,” he could hardly speak for the clench in his jaw. Joe were mad, I had never seen his eyes so dark and angry. The horse he rode was just as impatient to go throw itself into something other than more talking, like as if they were part of each other, it were stamping the ground, hot breath out of its nostrils, and the glint of cold moonlight on its back.
There was no raised voices but you could feel it burning between Joe and Ned. Holy Mary, I never heard or seen him so full of everything that had ever been done to himself and all of our kind. Every single deportation, kicking from the coppers, unlawful imprisonment, and snot-nosed hungry kid was all there in Joe’s voice and his eyes, and it weren’t anything about acceptance.
“You should ha just let me shoot the fucker, Ned. Christ…will yer not listen to me now?” His horse whinnied as its hooves trampled the grass, “We will never get justice from them. The bastards will hang us or shoot us down before they listen to us.” His hand was running over that Winchester, and his jaw hard as he looked up at the sky.
Ned’s eyes were about as wild as Joe’s, a start on his lips though about how he would make them see sense that was swallowed up in the space between them. I took one look back at the pub where Rosie was looking out of the window before I ran to the horse, me hand reaching to hold the reins. Sometimes you get to those places where the road forks and this was mine.
“Joe take me with you...fer Christ’s sake just take me with you. I’ve no job, no money, no lodgings, but I can help.” In truth I had no idea what I could do to help apart from keeping him warm, but that would do for now.
Joe frowned and looked at me, almost like he remembered that he could. “Are yer sure Evie? You know where we are headed, lass.” And he didn’t mean Greta, that much I knew.
“That’s why I need to come.”
He might have had a smile at the side of his mouth, I wasn’t certain, but he looked round at Ned who shrugged, still caught in his own thoughts.
“Well, unless she wants to be joining us on the scaffold, we better get a move on.”
One advantage of having nothing is that it doesn’t take long to pack. I gathered the few things I had and kissed Rosie goodbye before I slipped out into the dark. Joe grabbed me hand and I was up on that impatient horse and into the night without a glance backwards.
We just rode fast across the bush, and I shivered against the cold cloth of his jacket. He felt like the night, hard and frost and kind of sharp, well that was until me hands found the skin of his belly underneath all those layers. I always loved that, his skin, and I smiled into his back for him shifting in the saddle and squeezing me leg.
But it were a long hard night, the crossing of the swollen Murray River proving more dangerous than my horse skills were up to, and I was glad to just hold on tight to him. It must have been hours later, hours where we had stopped and started to let the horses rest and drink, before we arrived. Well at first I didn’t know we was anywhere particular, it were another stop and another cave and I was so tired I didn’t ask, but Joe slid from the horse and kissed me. “I won’t be long Evie, Ned’ll look after ye.”
I never even got the chance to answer before he was gone, hardly a sound of his feet while I peered into the gloom to a shack down below near the creek. “You may as well make yerself comfortable,” Ned smiled at me while he tied the horses to the trunk of a tree, his eyes looking at once all over the landscape.
“What are we doing here?” He stopped what he was doing and looked at me, maybe the first time he ever did properly, a flash of seeing what I was, and that was me wondering what the hell I was doing in the middle of the night with a man the whole of the constabulary was looking for, while me lover, if that was what he was, I weren’t none too sure right then, had left me to go someplace else. I have to admit I was wondering what I had gone and left that warm bed in Jerilderie for.
“Do you not know Evie? Joe needs some of that stuff he smokes from Aaron, that’s where he’s gone, down to Sherritt’s selection in the creek.” I could almost hear the sigh in Ned’s voice, “We’ve been riding a few days up to Jerilderie and back. He is a mighty force when he is himself, lass, Joe Byrne can do anything, Christ, I hope he can, but well…you get to know the signs that he is missing it, and THAT’s why we are here shivering our arses off while he visits Aaron.”
He said it like I would understand, and I frowned I think because I was beginning to. We sat there a while, no fire in case the traps were watching the place, but if they was, Ned said they sounded like buffalo coming over the bush, he’d read about them buffalo in a book about America, and we’d be long gone before they got near to us anyways. Ned, well he had a voice that you couldn’t help but listen to, deep and soft all at the same time, he just sat down and closed his eyes and talked, and if there had been a fire to warm us, I might have believed I was home and listening to me Da.
I don’t know why exactly Ned told me, maybe he was lonely too, but I heard about his Da, how he died broken and puffed up with disease and how his Ma found what comforts she could with men who might have loved her but who moved on and left her with just more children. And he told me about Joe, how he needn’t have even been one of the Kelly Gang, how he could of left and the coppers would have been none the wiser.
“Joe would stand between me and a bullet, ah I think he has, at least one that wasn’t fired yet, thank Christ, so I let him be, Evie. He needs that stuff from the Chinese fellas… I even put up with Aaron…” he smiled like a conspirator, and well I never felt so proud, he were a good man Ned Kelly.
Only God knows how long we was talking, but we both kept looking down at the creek all the same, a jump of Ned’s muscles before he stood up sudden, “He has been too long. It will be light soon enough.”
We didn’t speak anymore, instead moving down the hillside and into the mud at the bottom as the ground levelled out. Ned had his finger on his lips for me to stand still while he cocked his gun next to the door. I was hardly breathing to tell the truth, all things in me head about it being a trap and Joe already in it.
What I saw when Ned kicked open the door made me sway. Christ, I was wide-eyed, scared, and angry all at the same time! The pair of them were flat out on the bed next to the wall and a sweet smell of something I didn’t know in the air, and well thank God we weren’t the coppers because they was about 3 minutes too slow in reaching for their guns. It were the naked girl lying next to Aaron letting out a scream that woke them up, and even then I wasn’t sure if they could actually see our faces.
He had a half-asleep smile as he sat up rubbing his eyes, all wayward dark curls and hands not quite doing what he wanted them to do yet. I just stood there staring, finally I understood, and I was right balanced someplace between hitting him for leaving me and holding him for being alright, when I heard Ned behind me cursing, “Christ, who is this now? She can be only 13, Aaron.”
Aaron to be truthful was a little slow in covering himself, maybe he wanted me to see him or maybe he thought Ned wasn’t gonna shoot him naked, either way he sighed out loud, “Since when did we make you Governor of the state of Victoria, Ned? Deciding who a man can lie with? Her name is nuttin’ to do with you, and anyways I’m not superstitious...” He was smiling now, that way that he did, and Ned shook his head before he turned to Joe.
“You will get yerself killed, Joe.” Well that hung there in the smoke awhile I can tell you, and I could almost see Joe’s thoughts running around his head, Ned put his hand out to touch him before he changed his mind. There weren’t nothing they could do that wasn’t gonna get them killed.
“Aye well, let’s hope I take some of them with me when I do then.” Joe weren’t smiling, just wrapping some brown stuff in a cloth to slip into his pocket before we stepped out of the door and into the first light as we made our way back up to the horses.
He hadn’t rightly looked at me back at Aaron’s, but then there were dark eyes searching me face for anything to cling on to, the cold air had him awake and sharp again. “Jesus, I am sorry,” he just closed those eyes for a second, “I shouldn’t have left you for so long. Come with me to Ned’s, let me get you warm and something to eat, and then I will take you to yer Da’s, if that’s what you want.” He reached to me face and it were the first time we had touched for what seemed like hours, and I felt me eyes filling up with it all, his hand was on me cheek, his thumb pulling at me lips, “Ah Christ, Evie...”
With me deep between his legs on the saddle and his face set hard against the wind, he scouted the route through the trees and gullies to where the Kelly’s selection stood in Greta. Once we could see it, the danger of it all came washing over me.
“Joe won’t the coppers be there waiting for us?” I was tired and shivering and me nerves was all raw.
I think he felt another question in me voice rather than the words, and I felt his arms tighten round me before he spoke, just gentle, “Look at the washing on the line, Evie.” I was frowning I have no doubt but looked all the same, from where we were stood I could make out a line of underskirts and such like waving stiff in the wind.
Me confused look made him smile, and Ned too. “It’s a message from Kate. When the clothes are the right ways up it means the traps are long gone. Tom Lloyd and the boys keep a close eye on the comings and goings of the Victoria Police.”
What Kate made of me right then I don’t know, but she gave me, Joe, and Ned a bowl of hot oats and thinned milk, and it tasted like the best thing I ever ate. I was almost too tired to speak, and once we was done I just sat there looking at Joe across the table, his eyes straight back at me before he turned to ask Ned something I couldn’t quite hear, the question obvious when he took me hand and led me to the room out the back.
There were nowhere to sit but on the thin bed, and so we did. He was just aching, I could see it, and I wanted to take it all away, but I lifted me head and waited for him.
“Will yer hear me out before yer decide, Evie? What do you want to do?”
I am not sure how I managed to speak. “I want it to be alright Joe, I want to stay with you and it to be alright.”
He was just staring at me, him trying to say things he thought I might want to hear, but he just couldn’t, whatever else he did, Joe never lied to me. His hands, which usually seemed so sure of themselves, waited for me, to see if I moved away before they held me face like they was holding one of those tiny eggs, scared it would break and full of something like wonder, and I felt me eyes filling up while he kissed me mouth, just gentle. Jesus, I loved him and there is nothing I wouldn’t have done for us to be happy.
“We will never be ‘alright’ Evie, not me and you, we will be a thousand times more than alright or nothing at all. I am an idjut for leaving ye, maybe for smoking that stuff too, but I need you to understand, even if you are gonna leave.”
I couldn’t stand it, I just couldn’t, and I reached me hand to brush over his, but he didn’t stop. “You know me Evie, a bit more now than you did when you asked to come with me this morning I grant you, but you aren’t running out the door, so I am guessing it’s enough, for a little while anyhow. Lass, I wish I could always feel like I do now, right now I know everything there is about me and you. Despite the fact that the coppers might arrive any time, and, Christ, I might not see this winter out, it never felt clearer, safer, nor just how it should be, not since I didn’t know any better anyhow.”
His hands were on my shoulders now while he talked “Before me Da died, you know when I was a lad, and me and Aaron just spent days at the creek, ah sure we was supposed to be at school, but I already knew me words, it felt like nothing was ever going to go wrong, like it was the happiest a body could ever be, but aye I didn’t know any better.”
I couldn’t hardly stop meself crying by then, “Joe, please don’t…you don’t have to answer to me...I don’t care about the opium, smoke it all day if you want to. Please...I just want you, I just want you to smile.”
“Ah see, you got there before me Lass, that’s what I am trying to tell ye…” his fingers just stroked over me cheeks to catch the salt water.
“Yer know, I think its like what they go on about at church about never being good enough?” a small smile on his lips. “Well anyhow, I got it that you don’t care about all that, that how I am is what you want. No other woman ever did, not really. Not even me Ma. Some of them seem to like me well enough despite it all, some of them even say that they love me, and perhaps they do, but you Evie, you see it all, take it all on yer shoulders and still come with me, because it is who you are too. And that’s why I need you with me.”
Jesus. Well, will ye give me a minute…
Joe Byrne had it all in his head, knew almost everything there was about life and sex, and grabbed them both with two hands like they was the same. And maybe they are, because then he laid me down then and loved me, soft and gentle like he just wanted me to feel everything he thought as well as to hear about it. And I swear nothing ever made more sense.