|It weren’t safe for Ned and Joe to stay at
the selection for any amount of time, so what they had in mind was an
old shepherd’s hut up in the ranges behind, and with the
weather turning bad, there wasn’t a fool, never mind a
copper, who would be venturing up there if he didn’t have to.
They could last there the whole winter if necessary, as long as they
got supplies, and I was shaking my head with wonder as Kate explained
how the Kelly Gang’s supporters seemed to have the whole
thing wrapped up—food, places to hide out, and of course,
there was Aaron and his opium. The Chinese community, apart from being
very fond of their adopted son “Ah Joe,” had no
allegiance to the coppers neither, and she said how they would insist
on providing bits of food without taking the cost of it. Of course Ned
had been careful all along about looking after his own, making sure
debts were paid off, losses covered when fields were left rotting due
to one of our sort being arrested and all, and well I guess the fact
that no one had yet claimed the reward, now up to £8000,
don’t yer know, spoke for something.
I recall sitting back in me chair right there and then wondering how it would all end. It were like one of those battles I read about in America, in their war between the states I think it were, where one army set up on one side of the Rappahannock River in someplace called Virginia, and the other army on the opposite shore. And there they stayed, sometimes a big fight with hundreds dead, and sometimes one side trying to cross, but most of all just sitting there, looking and waiting for something to happen. Not that I were anxious for anything to happen, I don’t mind saying, seemed to me I had quite enough where that was concerned, but all the same, nothing could be normal. Ned and his brother Dan couldn’t run stock, and Joe couldn’t…well Joe couldn’t do whatever it was that he did, which seemed to me was a bit of everything as long as he didn’t have to stay in one place at a time. Ah well, I am smiling now, maybe that’s why he was here after all.
Anyways, what I needed to do was go visit me family and get a job—there weren’t gonna be anyone giving me free food and that was for sure—well those two things and one other…
Me Da, well, it had been a long time, and it was all there for me to see, despite him making a play of getting up and greeting me, his legs wouldn’t make it down over the Ovens River anymore, that’s for sure. Seems Michael and Jimmy had taken to carrying him about in the cart when he wanted yet more to drink. I stayed the whole afternoon telling them all about the job in the Royal Mail and all.
“Eighteen hours a day, lass? Ah now you should get on to them union fellas. I hear they are kicking up a storm in Melbourne and Sydney.” And he went on to tell me it all, some I had heard already a thousand times about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or so they was called, deported from England for organising a union, and some new about the gatherings he had heard about in the docks and on the larger farms and about the iron workers strikes too. He moved more then than I had seen him do in the last few hours, whiskey and bad legs conspiring against him, but nonetheless it made me smile, it was good to see him.
Mary was out courting, me Ma said, a “nice young man from Wangaratta,” which wasn’t without its barb, and I couldn’t believe the size of Sean,” looking more like Jimmy every day and twice as cheeky,” Da said with a smile. Me Ma, well she was a bit on edge, expecting the coppers to turn up any minute, I don’t doubt, and concerned about her reputation. Ah now, maybe I am being unfair to her, what she did was feed me and send me on me way, and in truth that was all she could do.
The next day I walked into Beechworth having kissed Joe goodbye, something I would like to think I got used to, but all the same this weren’t no “see you for dinner tonight” kiss, I never actually knew for certain when or, well God help me, IF I would see him again. Anyhow walking down the high street it came back, all that had happened—the sight of him across the road that spring morning with the sun on his curls, the smoky taste of his kiss down in that cellar, and Jesus, how I had watched him make love to Maggie in her room. And now I knew what it felt like, I swear I flushed pink there and then as me body remembered what his fingers and his body felt like heavy on top of me that very morning.
Well, I must have walked past the Commercial twenty times before I plucked up the courage to walk in, arguments with meself about how it was all best left and how she wouldn’t want to see me anyhow, so what was the point, and all rubbing up against tears in me eyes for what we had, how she helped me be who I was. I had no idea if she knew about me and Joe, what I did know was that as soon as she saw me, she would. So I didn’t have “Had Relations With Joseph Byrne” tattooed on me head, but well, I never was any good at pretending, and anyhow I came to thinking that having him changed you somehow, and she would know because she had too.
Anyhow, eventually I pulled me shawl round me and stepped through the door, it were more like going home than home, and I took a big breath of that air before me eyes searched around for familiar faces, hoping none of them with big bushy beards. Tom O’Leary spotted me first, bellowing, “Well now, Evie McBride, to what will we be owing this pleasure?” We talked minutes on how me Da was, hadn’t been in for a week or two, and how had I been and all that. Some of the old fellas me Da knew smiling at me, and Maggie, well she stayed polishing a glass, but looking at me and waiting for me to go to her.
Christ it was good to see her, whatever else I felt right then about what I had to say and what she might do, it was good to see her. “Will I see if Tom will let me help yer out tonight, Maggie, be like old times and all?”
We just looked at each other for what might have been an hour, sure Tom would have shouted if it had been, before she nodded. “Will I see if you can stay, Evie? Be like old times?…Except Joe isn’t coming by tonight.”
Jesus, well, I didn’t think it was going to be easy, and it wasn’t. I closed me eyes to stop myself doing or saying anything else right then, but she put her hand on my shoulder. “I would like yer to stay, Evie.”
I was glad to be working with her again, and it gave us a chance to catch up on all the other things, though me Da had very nearly been a fixture in the Commercial as much as the wooden tables, and it seemed that about everyone knew me business as well as I did. Maggie, well she told me that she’d been worried half to death when I’d had to leave Beechworth, all about the raids that had been going on more recent since that Hare had taken charge of the hunt for the Kelly Gang, how they was watching Joe’s mothers selection and Aaron’s place too. Before we knew it, Tom were stretching up to push the bolt across the door, and the place was quiet.
Sitting on the edge of Maggie’s bed, I watched her pull the curtains, such as they were, over the window and waited ‘til she sat down next to me. I was about to speak, tell her everything and pray she wouldn’t throw me out, when Maggie turned to face me. “Joe told me, Evie, he told me that you and him...had been together.”
I don’t think I was quite breathing, searching her face for what she was going to say next and what came was a sting from a scorpion I didn’t know was in the room with us. “He told me when he stayed here a week or so ago.”
Well it bloody hurt, I can tell yer, there I was expecting to turn up and confess it all and hope she could forgive me, and now instead, I was sitting with my mouth open, feeling all that same rush of pain and anger and despair and jealousy that I am sure she had felt, only she had walked with it for many more years. This wasn’t just “another woman,” but Maggie and Evie, us, and sitting so close we could hit or hug each other.
“Jesus, last week? Maggie…” she could see me starting to fall.
“I know, Evie, I know. I knew that would hurt yer, I am sorry. I am sorry for meself too, but I thought ye needed to know, not that he comes much, to tell the truth, what with the coppers and all. Anyways, well, I have helped out some, yer know, passing on some money and all that….”
To be honest with you, her voice was sort of drifting past me ears, because he was in me head, and the force of it just hit me like one of them steam trains. Floods of tears there were, I thought I would never be able to stop, and Maggie took a deep breath and put her arms round me, “Ah will ye come on, Evie. That’s just Joe…but I can’t keep waiting for him, well now there never was much point in that anyways….”
It was that single thing that made me lift me head and wipe me hands over my face. He were never “just Joe,” and it was never about me waiting. It were all about choices and freedom, his freedom and mine. He chose to stick with Ned whatever the consequences, he chose opium and women and to go wherever he pleased, and he chose me. No pretence and no excuses. The last few weeks just fell into place, he was laying it out bare for me. I was free to chose too, and I chose him completely and utterly and right there and then. No more deliberating and no more wondering if it were the right thing to do, I chose him come Hell or high water, and I had no doubt we would have plenty of both.
Me and Maggie talked ‘til the birds started their chorus, leaning back against the wall, all covered up like we always had done before. But it wasn’t the same, I would have been an idjut to think it would be. There was still hurt and things dragged out into the air that wasn’t ready to heal yet, but we were there and that was enough. Whether I could explain it or not, whether she understood it all or not, the penny had really dropped, and in truth I felt sorry a bit that Maggie, for as much as she loved him, she couldn’t take that step. But she had cleared the final path for me to take mine, and I couldn’t wait to run back to him.
Things conspired to stop me for a couple of days. First I had to get work, which I did in the telegraph office on account of the fact I could read and write, and then I found myself a room in town. Ah, I know I could have stayed at me Ma’s, but well, this way I could come and go as I pleased. I would beg or borrow a horse to ride up and see him, and sometimes he would arrive late at night out the back and we would lie in that thin bed, his long legs all tangled up with mine, Christ I’d be surprised if the Queen herself couldn’t see me grin all the way over in England.
We even had tea with his mother in Sebastopol one night, right under the noses of the coppers and all. And if you forgot for a moment that the whole of the South Wales and Victoria constabulary was out to hang him, not to mention the Times and all the newspapers calling him a murderer and scum, if you forgot all that and that anyone could shoot him on sight and be clapped on the back for performing a public service since he was officially an outlaw, then well, we were happy.
Sometimes I didn’t see him for weeks on account of the snow, it were a vicious winter that year, and the Wombat ranges were a challenge to folk in the best of times, but Christ, we made up for it when we did. He loved me hard and gentle over and over, and we rode fast as we could over the land those squatters thought they owned but in fact belonged to the birds and the lizards, the warthogs and the roos, and to us, it belonged to us. Joe said it were like that in America, said it were open and free, well for Irish fellas anyhow, and that one of these days he’d convince Ned that it was either get on a boat or be done for. Of course he knew it weren’t gonna happen, but that didn’t stop us dreaming.
Sometimes we sat for hours talking about ranches in the Wild West, as they called it, like we was in a position to go buy one, ah I am smiling. We used to pretend like as we was hot shots instead of “selector scum,” how we would dress up all fine and hand over bags full of paper money for a big wooden house, with stairs, I wanted stairs. We would talk about any little facts we could remember from newspapers we had seen, the papers from England were full of the Zulu Wars, as they were named, in Africa where the British redcoats had been defeated in battles with black men with spears and knives, which Joe said was no bad thing, but nonetheless we went over and over each detail like they were jewels to be examined with a glass. Joe had read books too, and I could sit there with his legs and his arms all round me with me head on his chest letting him paint all those pictures with that soft voice of his. I don’t suppose that God would have ever considered Joe and me right and proper, but this was the only honeymoon I was ever gonna get. Ah white was never my colour anyhow.
It were a dark rainy night when I arrived at the shack, late October I think it were, armed with some bread I’d bought for them to have for supper, though what good the soggy mass was gonna do I can’t imagine, when what I saw sent me blood running cold through me heart.
I had never seen Joe like that, white and shaking. He was always lean, but he looked like he’d not eaten in days. He were just laying on what passed for a bed, the blankets up to his chin, a groan as I sat on the bed like he was in pain. “Jesus…what’s the matter, Joe?”
When he didn’t answer, well I wasn’t rightly sure he had heard, I looked round at Ned, thinking there must be something wrong with them three to be sitting there messing about with their business of smoking and playing cards while he was looking so sick.
Steve shrugged his shoulders ‘He’s out of that brown stuff, lost some as we crossed the King’s River. It’s been about 3 days now, and Tom Lloyd says the coppers are watching Aaron, so…well, he’ll be over it soon.”
My face flushed with anger as it was dawning on me that Joe was in a dark hole of his own making. I pulled me hand out of his and turned on Steve. “You are not gonna leave him like this? How long will it last? Jesus, what if the cops come here? How is he gonna get out?” It were like a gathering snowball in me mind.
Ned eventually looked at me for a second before returning to his cards, his jaw was set hard. “There’s nothing to be done about it. I have seen him worse.”
Well I doubt they’d ever seen me so mad, slamming my hands down on the table. “Ned, you told me yerself, ‘Joe can do anything’ you said. Well, he can’t bloody do it like this! Jesus, he couldn’t even ride a horse to get out of here, never mind fire that Winchester to cover your backs. YOU need him and, even if I wish it were different, he needs that stuff right now, so well…why can’t one of you get him some?”
Their faces was all looking at me, Ned was standing now, and I was shaking almost as much as Joe. “And what do you propose we do, Evie? Knock up ol’ Paddy Allen in his shop in Beechworth and buy some, easy as you please? Did you not hear, girl? The coppers are watching Aaron’s place, the ranges are crawling with the bastards. Is it not enough he has put us all in danger? Because yes, you are right, lass, I do need him and his Winchester, and his mind, God help me, when he isn’t dragged out over the rack like this. But now you are asking me now to go ride into a place where I know for a fact they are waiting for me?”
I couldn’t quite answer him, so I just met his eyes. Ned Kelly and Evie McBride, well I don’t suppose you had two people who cared about Joe more. “Alright, I will go then.” I must have just thrown the soggy bread, because the cards went everywhere, frustration all bubbling up, and then I saw Joe go to stand up, only he couldn’t quite, more of a stagger than a step towards me.
“Evie, ye can’t.”
“I bloody well can. Christ, Joe, it’s not enough that every copper in 3 counties wants to kill you, that you intend to make it easy for them?” And I with that, I pulled me shawl over me head, stepped out into the freezing rain, and started off down the mud that passed for a track a good few miles to Aaron’s selection.
Once I was on the flat again, I mounted the horse and made some progress, but it were a fearful night, and I must have looked like a drowned rat by the time I started to slide down the bank to the shack. With a look up at the hills, I saw the caves lit up like beacons, and I shook me head, did they really think they would catch the Kelly Gang like that? Just a turn of me stomach reminded me that an hour or so ago I was asking Ned to come here hisself.
I banged on the door with me fist until it swung open, and Aaron of course in nothing but a union suit. “Christ, Aaron, are ye never dressed?”
He stood back in the doorway and grinned, stretching his arm up over the frame while he looked at me. “Never know who might come by, and look who did. Well now, Evie McBride, can’t say as you look yer best, but I knew you’d be calling on me in the end. Come in, why don’t yer. Maybe’s you can dry off some of them clothes by the fire.”
I was barely in the door before he shut it behind me, his hands already on me shoulder, but I were in no mood for his games. “Aaron, I have come for Joe. He needs that stuff you smoke.”
Aaron’s brow creased a bit for a second. “Aye, well he has quite an appetite for it, well and for a pretty lass too, one of the many things we share.”
But me eyes were filling up. “Aaron, he is a mess, he can’t hardly stand, Steve says he lost it in the water, and the traps…they are everywhere. Will ye just give me some for him, please? Ah Christ, I know what it might do to him,” well I couldn’t quite breathe “but them coppers are aiming to kill him first.”
Aaron stopped short. “Does Ned know you are here?” His face was changed and with something like gentle he helped me out of me wet coat to put it steaming by the fire with my shawl. Well I told him the whole story while he poured me a shot of whiskey and rooted around in a box, a familiar block of brown being cut and wrapped. I dunno why to tell the truth, maybes I just needed to tell someone to get it straight in me own head exactly what I was doing there, and if anyone was going to understand it was Aaron.
“Evie…” his face screwed up like as if he couldn’t decide whether to say it or not, “can yer not convince him to take yer some place, Sydney…anywhere?”
I looked at him like he had just said the Queen was a Chinese woman. “Jesus, Aaron, he won’t leave Ned to fight those bastards alone, you know that.”
“Well maybe he should, Evie, it isn’t his fight. I told him that, told Joe that me and him would be alright whatever they did, whoever was the governor of Victoria, we could bend in the wind, blow over this colony picking up lasses as we go.” I frowned at him and he knew it wasn’t funny either and looked right back at me as he passed me the still soggy coat from the back of the chair. “He seems determined to get himself killed, and that’s for sure. I guess it’s up to us to try and stop him, wouldn’t you say? Anyhow this will do for now,” and he pressed the small package into my hand.
“You are wrong, Aaron, it is his fight, and mine too and yours. It isn’t just about Ned’s mother and them bloody horses, you must know that.” I was struggling to push my arms through the wet sleeves of my coat as Aaron took a deep breath.
“Well, I will leave the revolution to you and Ned, Evie. It’s Joe I am worried for.”
I would have stayed and argued with him, God knows all those years of listening to me Da had to be worth something, but me mind was on Joe. “Go, lass, he will be worse,” like he read me thoughts.
“The coppers will have seen me come here, Aaron, they are up on the hill.”
“Aye, I know they are, made them tea once or twice just so they knew that I did, but they’ll think you’re another of me women.” He couldn’t resist a grin then, it were just who he was, “Look after him, Evie.”