“Will yer look at this, lass!” me Da was laughing hard and spluttering the words out as I stood at the table, ladling the thin soup into bowls. Wiping a tear from his eyes he proceeded to read from The Ovens and Murray Advertiser an article under the headline of “Outlaw Hunting in Victoria.” I can’t remember now the exact words of it, you will have to forgive me, but it were a joke article, a satire so it’s called, on the coppers’ inability to catch the Kelly Gang.
By sticking to his plan, Captain Standish is confident of capturing the outlaws before they die of old age.
Well me Da was nearly doubled over as he read aloud about how the coppers had taken a number of lunar observations with a view to obtaining the exact position of the gang and it were found that
Ned and Dan Kelly were concealed exactly at the lines of circumvallation, while Hart was standing on a rock three points to the northward, and Byrne was smoking a cigar eight points to the south.
Even me Ma were laughing, and I suppose we all hoped it were true that the coppers really were as useless as they seemed. The truth was that the searches were increasing now that the winter was over, with black trackers being called in to follow the trails. The traps had watches on Joe’s mother’s house, well that was a bit of a standing joke, she knew they were there since she found old tin cans that glinted in the sun leftover from their none-too-disguised camps, but they were hassling and worrying the people who were the gang’s eyes and ears just like flies around horses. Sympathisers were being denied selections and arrested without ever then being charged. Nevertheless, all the while Ned’s popularity grew, there was even a nickname for us - the Greta Mob, so me Da told me. Christ, I even heard some songs being sung in the Commercial one night, like them old Irish ballads of heroes and times gone past, telling stories about how brave they were and how God was on their side. Well I don’t know about that, but it made me smile all the same.
It was also in the Commercial that I heard something from Maggie that was less heartening. “Rumour has it that Aaron is talking to the coppers again, Evie. Will yer see Joe?” There weren’t nothing specific in what she said, just that she had heard people talking and calling Aaron out, some said he was flashing money around and all, others claiming he was feeding the coppers false information to help the Kelly Gang, but I left with a troubled mind that I had not planned on having, that’s for sure.
I didn’t see Joe for a while and it weighed heavy on me until at last I got a day off from the telegraph office, and I rode as quick as I could up to Greta, the late spring rains made it heavy going in the mud but I thought Kate might know what best to do, where they were. Kate were always calm, well she had to be I suppose, her and Tom Lloyd having the main task of making sure the supplies got through, passing on information as to where the coppers were and all, while evading the searches and the eyes of the traps themselves. What I had to tell her though was nothing like breaking news, Kate said that there were such stories all over Victoria, which Aaron being himself, well I think her words were “cocky effin bugger,” refused to answer, but then Ned figured to stay one step ahead of Aaron Sherritt anyway. Aaron were just part of the tangled web of it all, spun round with Joe and all of their fates.
What Kate told me next made me heart quicken—they were coming back down from the ranges. Ned had an idea and a plan that was going to turn things all around and send them coppers running back to hide in Queen Victoria’s skirts. He was gonna make Joe into a warrior who couldn’t die, an ironclad man that couldn’t be harmed by bullets. Kate said he had seen pictures of a ship called The Monitor, a huge indestructible armoured warship used in America that could withstand anything, and the Kelly Gang, well they were to build their own armour.
I will never forget my first glimpse of Joe as they arrived back, the first time I had seen him in weeks it were, and it made me catch me breath. Half stolen from me by the fucking coppers forcing them to live like dogs, he were dirty and hungry and weary and sick from the opium—the blaze that was Joe Byrne beaten down to a flicker. He was so thin I thought his bones might break if I touched him, and all I wanted to do was what he had asked me in that letter all those months ago, to soothe him and stoke that fire, to help him burn bright again. He were 23, and he knew how our folk saw him, alongside Ned, Steve and Dan, he carried the hopes and dreams and expectations of all the rest of us. Well that was true, but he was also my Joe, and I just wanted him back too.
What Ned’s plans did was bring us all round to thinking and planning with an eye to it being, well, finished if you like, one way or another. Oh Steve and Dan was full of it and Ned too, boasting that they would face down those coppers and force them to withdraw and make them release Ellen Quinn, there was even talk of a republic on nights when the beer was flowing freely, but Joe, well, he was mostly quiet.
I couldn’t be away from him, every second I could I was there. Ah maybe Joe got fed up with me always on his lap or my hand in his, but he never said, he just used to grin at me and kiss me cheek, and well now I am glad that I did. If I could have crawled inside his skin to be even closer I would have.
There seemed like days on end while he drew detailed plans for suits of armour based on patterns he had seen in a book, a Chinese suit of armour all jointed and the most fearsome looking thing I ever saw. I can still see him now at that big wooden table, his face all intent and the pencil held tight in his strong hand, curls all spilling over his face, “Now what do yer make of that, Evie? That’ll be sure to give Hare the fright of his life, wouldn’t yer say?” He were meticulous with it, maybe it took his mind off other things, because whilst bit by bit his face filled out and his eyes started to sparkle again, he slept badly, turning on the mattress and waking suddenly. I worried about the nights I couldn’t stay with him, when he had no one to hold him.
Mind…ah Christ..I would take a thousand of those fretful nights in place of the peace I have now. You will have to let me catch my breath a minute.
Alright, where was I? Weeks went by where all we did was meet with farmers and selectors, they seemed to seep out of the hillsides and the towns, seemed like everyone had heard of the bloody Monitor and wanted to help fortify it. Some days we were surrounded by people out in the bush, it were a wonder they didn’t have bunting up and a band playing like it were a festival holiday or something. The bush forges filled with donated metal that was being bent and hammered into shapes that would cover their chests and their heads and, God willing, save them from whatever it was that was round the next corner.
It were a truly inspiring summer to tell the truth. It made me think of me Da and all his stories about how people come together in times of need. Despite having next to nothin’ and you’d think wanting to hold on to what little they had, here they was, the poorest selectors willingly giving up their plough boards for the Kelly Gang’s armour, machinery that, well to be frank, would make the difference between making their repayments or not. Seems to me that people can do great things if they set their mind to it, things that you would never expect.
Joe, well, he were happy sitting in the middle of it all, a cigarette in his mouth, plans and papers and measurements in his hands. I would be nearby watching him painstakingly explain and transfer the lines and the numbers from the paper into an image in the head of someone who spent their life not looking up from the dirt they were ploughing, then see him smile and clap them on the back when they got it. He just made people see themselves and things differently.
He was beautiful—those flames licking up higher now. You could see it again in how Joe talked all serious and intense, how he walked like the ground was his, the strength returning to him. We were together often, but to be truthful, it were different to those lazy afternoons we had spent with his legs all mixed up with mine, dreaming of ranches in America, this were faster and harder, like he was searching for something else, someplace else to go.
One Saturday night it were I watched him drift away from me again, back into Joe the warrior not my lover, his eyes sharper at the edges like they couldn’t quite stop focussing, but on anything except me. Me legs were still shaking from the power of him, Joe would burn you up when he loved you like that, and I took a deep breath in. Climbing on top of him I sat on his belly, feeling the smooth of his skin, that little line of hair, and the edges of his bones against my thighs and me body, and I bent to hold his face in me hands, “Joe...look at me.”
Well he could make you melt with those eyes, and despite a few moves of his head, which I pulled him back from, I got the full force of them in the end. “What is it, Evie? You need some more? Give me a minute, lass.” He was smiling now, teasing me, his hands moving up me thighs, and despite me intentions he made me shiver.
“Well I just might…” a little raspy me voice, I don’t doubt, “but I want to talk to you…want to know where you left the rest of Joe Byrne.”
He looked at me with a little frown, that crease between his brow that made me want to kiss him, but all the same this were too important. “I feel like you still got a door shut in that head of yours, Joe. Will ye take a bit of time away from that hammering and metal to come with me back to Beechworth?”
Joe grinned at me now, “A mystery tour is it? Aye then, I’ll go with ye.”
I knew Mr. Cheshire at the telegraph office would be out of town that Sunday. He were well acquainted with the coppers and had been helping them establish the telegraph communications between the towns, in fact he thought he had it all sewn up, wires between the bank and the office and the police headquarters in Beechworth. They were communications I found it easy to muddle a little bit once in a while, a wrong word typed here or there, not that it wasn’t easy to muddle a copper it seemed, but anyways he was out of town that Sunday, and his residence above empty. I had never been invited up to it, but one thing I did know was that he had a bath, a big brass one, arrived from Melbourne he told me. I suspect his reason for telling me was less to impress me with his home furnishings than see if I might want to try it out, but I was certain he wasn’t intending me to bring an outlaw there.
Despite the heat Joe kept his collar up and his hat on, and well, his beard had grown a bit since last he was in Beechworth. We kept to the sides of the road until I slipped me hand into the porch to find the key Mr. Cheshire left there “in case of emergencies,” he said, “the constabulary may need to be alerted at any time.” He were full of his own importance and no mistake, so much so that one might say he ignored the snake in his own woodpile.
It didn’t take much to get through the door and up the stairs, to where Mr. Cheshire’s shiny brass bath stood in the kitchen. It took pans and pans of water, I thought it would take a month of Sundays to be full, but at last it was, and I pulled Joe up to stand in front of me. It were a bit hard to concentrate, to tell the truth, he could just overwhelm you with want, oh see I am smiling now, but once you got yer hands on his hips and yer fingers on that skin, it were all promise and me body took over, other considerations tending to float out the window.
But despite meself I stepped back and watched him pull his belt through the buckle with a snap, undo buttons too slowly and slide his pants down over hips I wanted to feel against mine. I just couldn’t help but look at him, me eyes doing the caressing me fingers were tingling to do. His long body slipped under the water, I had even found some soap to make a foam of bubbles and Jesus…well I tell yer when his head came back up through the water, drips on his lashes and water shaking down through those curls, I had to close my eyes.
He was smiling at me, “You gonna help me then?” and he had that devil in his eye that would have women flocking.
“Aye, well lie still then,” and once I got to touching him and he lay back against the bath with those beautiful eyes shut and his shoulders sinking down into the warm water, I remembered why we came. I let me fingers run over his tan skin, smooth and gentle and like silk them fine ladies wear, making him sigh and breath slow like he was almost asleep, me hands stroking down along his long legs and his now strong arms made thicker by all that hammering, across his belly that was as flat as a plough share itself, and around shoulders that carried more than he should.
Despite a few months of good eating he were still him, still bones and muscle like steel, he was what they wanted, a warrior. And here I was washing him, and well, maybe making him ready for what was going to happen. I heard in church once that the priests used to anoint their soldiers before battle, and maybe there is a lightning bolt aiming for me right now, but that’s what it felt like. I can still feel him now in my fingers, they want to remember him too, the rhythm of them lulling him and me off someplace else, some place warm and safe.
“Joe,” no more than a breath really, just a brush of me lips on his arm as it draped over the side of the bath, I didn’t want to make him move but I did need to talk to him. “I want all of you,” and I didn’t mean his body, though there was little chance that we would be leaving without giving each other that too.
He didn’t open his eyes but his fingers came to my face, like it would be too much to feel and see at the same time. “Evie…we are gonna give them a show like they never seen, gonna make them think twice about the way that they lord it over all us colonials…and maybe Ned is right…maybe we will get them to stop. I can do it, and you know that I will, lass. We’ve come this far that there’s no way now except there, but...”
His fingers traced me face and touched me lips as we sat there in the sinking afternoon sun through the window, the water curling his hair all round his ears. “But what, Joe? Will you just tell me? I need to hear you say it, if only to me.”
I wish he hadn’t opened his eyes. “I don’t want to leave you, Evie. Jesus, I don’t want to.”
Well you can see me now, but right then I bit me lip to stop it quivering. If I was gonna make him say it, then I had to hear it.
“I don’t know how to be that man they all want me to be, to be the hard killer of coppers and the soldier, and to take what is coming, which is more than likely the cloth of the undertaker if I am lucky. I don’t know how to do that and be your man, Evie, because I am taking you to hell too.”
“Oh Christ, Joe…”
“It’s what is in my head, lass. Now I am not saying I ever wanted to die, but there’ve been times when I didn’t care much either way. But it is hard now. You are a fine reason not to go to that place, and a witness I both want and can’t stand to think of...”
Jesus, but he was crying then, and me too, and I couldn't do anything but hold him tighter, “shushing” him and trying to make it stop.
A watery voice I didn’t know I had, “Aaron said I should take you away with me.”
“Aye, well maybe he speaks some sense sometimes,” even a small smile from him.
“But it might be alright. Ned has plans and all, doesn’t he?”
“Yes he does, Evie. We will take over the whole colony, don’t you know,” he was wiping his face but serious now, holding me eyes with his. “Ah shit, I am a fool but I didn’t want to drag you there too and I don’t want to break yer heart Lass” Jesus, well, I took the deepest breath - I couldn’t see him bend under it.
“You need to be one of those Chinese warriors for Ned and for you and for me and for all of us, and well, I will load your pistol for you if you want. It’s my fight too; I told you that before on the top of the hill by my mother’s. Me heart is yours Joe, broken, in pieces or swelled up like it is now. I love yer”
I can’t tell you for crying, but it sealed it all, him and me and no space between us. And then I could touch him, make him hard and want me with him in that water, and it were lucky Mr. Cheshire got delayed because him and me, well we about loved each other ‘til we couldn’t hardly move. And that was him back, looking me right in the eyes while I melted in his heat—Joe Byrne blazing bright as the Australian sun.
Ah...we needed that time for what came next.
I had been visiting me Da one late Sunday afternoon, and just preparing to leave, well I had stepped out and pulled me shawl tighter against the air, when Jimmy steps outside and catches me arm. “Evie,” his voice was no more than a whisper, “me mate in Wangaratta heard Aaron Sherritt mouthing off about the armour Ned has built, says he had a good night out with Hare on account of it. Aaron told the coppers about The Monitor, told them everything they have, down to the fact of where it’s buried for safekeeping. Me mate heard it, Evie, and he’s as loyal to the Kelly’s as you are.”
Well me blood stopped pumping right there and then, all drained from me head and me stomach so I thought I might fall. “Jesus! Oh effing hell, Jimmy. What shall I do?”
He just looked at me. “Tell Ned and Joe, Evie, that’s what you got to do!”
That ride was never so hard, and I can’t tell you how many times I almost turned back, Christ, I can feel me stomach churning right now to think of it. It was dark by the time I scrambled up the bank to where I knew they’d been camped the last week. Joe’s smile was so wide it made me wince.
“Evie, ah well you made me night now, come get warm,” but then a frown, “lass, what’s wrong?”
I sort of had to get it out before he touched me. I just had to, me voice out of breath and shaky. “It’s Aaron…he’s a stool pidgeon alright…he’s told the coppers, Joe…about the armour.”
Christ, well the world might have stopped turning that moment, and I watched him race through all the thoughts in his head—the denials, the “would she lie” questions, the months of rumours, and the feel of the water over his body as he and his friend landed splash in the creek as boys—and all in the second it took Steve, Dan, and Ned to jump to their feet.
“He’s a stinkin’ proddy, just like his dad!” Steve spitting onto the baked earth.
“Aye, he’s fuckin’ traitor, you KNOW that Ned! Why d’yer let him take the piss out of us all this time, laughing at us, flashing money around? Bet he lets them coppers shag his wife too for a few extra bob!” Dan no longer a boy but a man made bitter by his few years. Holy Mary, I thought Joe was gonna shoot them both, his hand on his pistol before Ned stepped between them.
“Tell me exactly what Jimmy said, Evie,” Ned was hard and calm, but to be honest, I couldn’t quite breathe for the way Joe was looking at me. So I did my best, and there was rows about all that had been said, but Joe was not listening exactly, just battles in his mind. He was pacing round like an animal caught in a pit, railing at the moon and then flashing sparks at Steve and Dan. I was shaking like a spring leaf in the breeze, and Jesus, I just wanted to hold him, but he might just explode if I did.
And then Joe cursed loud and walked into the dark, and every muscle in my body moved after him even if me head was not convinced I should. “Leave him, Evie. Let him go, lass,” the last words I heard from Ned, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t let him go.
I followed the sound of his crashing footsteps through the bush until he stopped at a ridge, of course he knew I was behind him, but he didn’t turn round. “What are you doing here, Evie? What do you want?” His voice was taken off by the wind in part, and I were glad it was, I didn’t want to hear all that sharpness.
But when he did turn round I wished he hadn’t, I had never seen his face like that. “Jesus, Joe...” I couldn’t manage much else.
“What, Evie? What do you want from me?” and as I stood there in front of him, I watched him tearing up everything he could reach. “You want this?” and he pulled at his belt, my sobs and cry of “no” making him look at the sky before he closed his eyes for a second, his brows all knotted, a breath of sorry.
“Well, what then? You want me to say, ‘Yes, you are right, Evie! Me best friend sold me to the coppers?’ Fuck it!” It was so jagged it hurt to hear it. Joe, whose voice could charm birds out of trees, now a serrated edge. “He wouldn’t do it! He wouldn’t betray me! We grew up together, done everything together, he is just trying to help me! You know nothing about it. Get back to yer life, Evie, go back to Beechworth and yer job. There is nothing here!”
I don’t know what it was, but I pulled meself up. All this time we was together, and it weren’t the big important Joe and his woman, it were me and him. So I made myself be who I was too, me voice as loud as his, despite the tears running down me face. “I don’t have a life, Joe, and neither do you! They are gonna kill you, armour or no. You know it, and as God is my witness, I hope they finish me off while they are at it!”
Joe looked straight back at me and I swallowed “Aaron has betrayed you, Joe. He already did it, whether you believe it or not right now. I don’t know if it matters now either, but I love you so much it makes me ache, and I’ll no more leave you than jump off this ridge. Everything is here”
He went to walk away from me but almost like he couldn’t, he needed to hear himself speak, see what it sounded like to say it, to say he was betrayed. “Evie…”
But he weren’t ready yet, not ready to look it in the face that Aaron was a traitor, and this time I let him go. How I got back home, I couldn’t tell you, full of tears and, to be truthful, a part of me would have shot Aaron myself if I had a gun and I thought it would make Joe hurt any less. I just knew that it wouldn’t.
It were a couple of days later, when I was sitting at me desk that the bell sounded, another telegraph to transcribe in a blur of days where I could hardly think for missing him, days when news of coppers digging up fields came trickling into every bar. Only this message was different.
Our informer has been shot. Repeat. Aaron Sherritt has been shot.
I could feel my stomach retch. This was it. The thing was begun.