barely heard Mr. Cheshire shouting “Miss McBride! Where do
you think you are going?” as I ran out of the office and
started down the street. By the time I reached the Crawford’s
coach business on the edge of town, I was gasping for breath and me
head was in a whirl, I could only think of getting to Joe. One of the
lads who looked after the coach horses had a shine for me and what I
needed was a horse, I didn’t care what the lad wanted in
return after, I just had to get to him.
Within 10 minutes of reading that telegram, I was racing over the plains outside Beechworth towards Greta, no idea where exactly I was going, but trusting to whoever it was that had got me this far that they would lead me to where I needed to be. I knew he couldn’t go to Ned’s selection, nor his mother’s, the coppers had burnt down the shack they’d stayed in last winter, and while I rode I became more and more desperate. He could be anywhere, all them caves and hideouts, their supporters would just swallow them up like quicksand if they had to, he could be anywhere...except that I knew he would be needing me. And every minute I was away from him knowing that, it were like a knife twisting in me gut.
“Jimmy…Jimmy will help me look” is what I thought. I had a good look behind me to make sure I wasn’t followed and then pulled the horse up to cross Oven’s River, taking a detour past our selection. Holy Mary, I tell ye that Darragh at the coach business must have liked me a lot because the horse he gave me could run alright and it weren’t long before I could see the ridge above me mother’s house, well me eyes were all blurred from the sun and wind but I knew where I was, what I was struggling to make out was a figure and a horse by the tree at the top. Christ, of course it were him, just like those few years ago, of course he would come there! Well I tell you, I could have beat that horse in a race if I had to run then, it had hardly stopped before I was off its back and I had Joe in me arms.
He buried his face in me neck and I just held him as tight as I could and whispered his name, saying anything that came into me head in amoungst crying for him. I really wanted to see his face, look in his eyes, but he was holding on tight and I could feel his tears on me skin, a shake in his body that I couldn’t stop no matter how I pulled him closer. When I finally got him to sink down to the ground with me and could pull his head away from me shoulder, I swear I cried out to see him, nothing to do but wipe his face with me fingers. His eyes were as dark as night, I never seen anything like it, they were like a hole in his soul, his beautiful long lashes all matted with wet and salt, the only curtain there was to cover all that exposed pain.
“I shot him, Evie, I fuckin’ shot Aaron, me friend and a bloody traitor. Jesus forgive me!” and his head was back to look at the sky. Well I suppose I guessed it had been him, he wouldn’t have let anyone else take his friend’s life, Christ they had spent their time watching each other’s backs, but to hear him say the words made me sway.
“Joe, I know...well I thought, that’s why I came looking for yer.”
He couldn’t hardly even speak. “There’s only you left, Evie.”
Oh God, I don’t think I can tell yer, I can’t tell yer how me heart was being ripped out of me, this man I loved like nothing else, was just in pieces in front of me, and all he thought he had was me.
“That’s not true. You have Ned and the others and yer mother and all of us, you have all of us.”
He struggled to stand up. “Evie, but I shot me friend, he were looking me right in the eyes and I still pulled the trigger!” Joe’s hand was on his pistol now, pulled it out to twist the barrel, the cold metal was in his hands and I could read them, what his hands were thinking of doing.
“Joe! Put it down, for the love of God, put it down…”
“I am no good, I am gonna burn in Hell sure enough. I shot him in cold blood, he didn’t even stand a chance, cold blood, right…” I could hear the barrel spinning while it all raced round his head. “Jesus, me and Ned talked about it, planned it, but it weren’t nothing like I thought…Aaron was looking at me and…well fuck knows why he did it, but he shouldn’t have been lying there in the dirt. Oh Christ!! His face and his blood…his blood all spilled out over the ground and his Mary screaming, I could hear her voice in me head for miles after...”
It took some doing to get that gun off him and into me shawl. “Joe will yer look at me, please...Come back to me a minute.” I don’t know if he could see me to be truthful, but he let me hold his hands. “I don’t know why he did it either. He did want to get you away from the gang, maybe some to save you and maybe some to have you for himself, have the life you had back. But it were gone, Joe, the coppers and the squatters and the effin Queen saw to that. And what he did, whatever the reason, he put you and Ned and all those folks who look to you, who need change, well, it put us all in danger. He betrayed us all. Oh, I am so sorry I can’t make it all go away…”
Me hand stroked down through those dark curls to his neck, “you remember the last time we was here?” He just looked at me and nodded, a flash of happier times across his face. “You were so beautiful, you still are. You were waiting for me then too, with a cigarette and all cocky because you knew, ah well I think you knew the moment you saw me that I was yours. Anyhow, you said to Michael ‘it seems to me that Evie can speak for herself’ and I can, Joe, and I say you had no choice. You did what had to be done, and Christ that doesn’t make it any easier, but if doing what you needed to will send you to hell, then God has no business pretending He knows what’s right.”
He was just like a raw nerve stripped of its skin, with only a small idea of how to cover itself. “Well I don’t now about that, but maybe I am gonna find out soon enough. Will yer hold onto me, lass…?” And I would have held him right there until we both turned to dust.
It were late into the afternoon before we left, I don’t suppose he had slept all the night before, and if all I could give him was some rest, then that was enough for now. I just kept his head in me lap and me body close around his as much as I could.
“Where has Ned gone, Joe?” I whispered just soft to him as he woke up, a moment before he tensed up again with memory.
“Glenrowan, I said to meet him on the road to Glenrowan. Jesus it’s late, come with me, Evie.”
We had ridden together before many times, followed each other over hills and valleys and it weren’t far to the crossing of King River, I could see the Warby Ranges in the distance, and whilst I didn’t know why we were heading to Glenrowan, the dark of those mountains held it all. We took it slower after the crossing, watching for traps and skirting trees. Joe, well he just focussed on where we were, keeping me close and his Winchester closer still. I might have pitied any copper that crossed our path.
It were just on the rise above the road from Greta to Glenrowan that I saw the most strangest charabanc I ever saw in me life. There were carriages and carts, cages on wheels, and caravans all following each other, and at the front was a familiar figure. I must have turned to smile at Joe and said, “It’s Ned,” because he smiled back.
We left a trail of dust down the bank before we pulled up in front of the caravan. “Will yous be wanting to join the circus then?” Ned winked at me.
“Aye, that we will,” before anyone could speak.
“Well that’s grand. This here is the circus master, the Great Orlando,” Ned indicated the most impressive ol’ fella with enormous whiskers, an even more enormous hat, and the most dewy blue eyes I ever saw. “Orlando, meet the fabulous Joe Byrne who can shoot a gold sovereign out of the sky while on horseback amoungst many other exceptional things, and well, I am not sure what Evie McBride here can do for the circus, except maybe a little magic…” His eyes were flashing “Thank God you got him here” and maybe that was magic enough.
We carried through to the town in a procession and I wondered if I were in a dream and had yet to wake up, oh how I wished that were true too. This was nothing like I ever saw, there were animals of all sorts in cages, monkeys making a racket, animals with humps in their backs, and a huge cat with hair all around—a lion, well I never thought I would see a lion from Africa! There were women painted like warriors and men so short I wondered if they were children, and we all rode into Glenrowan as the sun set on the longest day, or so I thought.
It were like a reception party when we got there, Mrs. Jones at the Inn ushering us in to the dark bar, drinks all round and smiling faces. And when Ned stood up to address the folks sitting round, the penny finally dropped in me head that once the shooting of Aaron had been decided on, the plan was set in motion if yer like, Aaron’s death, whether desired or not, was the trigger to the next stage. Most of the folks there were nodding and agreeing as Ned outlined the course of events, all except a rather sullen looking group tabled in the corner. “Three guesses who those fellas are,” Joe winked at me, but I could spot a copper at 60 paces myself by now.
The plan seemed all settled; they chose the place, the time, arranged a full moon even. As expected, Hare had responded to Aaron’s death by calling for troops to come en masse to the area, information was coming in from all directions that the coppers were on the move and that there would be a special train from Benalla full of police the next night. Ned was at pains to point out that they would be pulling the tracks up after the last passenger train went through, and that whilst he hoped the crash would send a whole load of them coppers to kingdom come, the rest would be taken hostage, their release dependent on his mother’s.
Well to be honest with you, I couldn’t quite take it in. Here I was, Evie McBride, sitting in a bar full of circus folk, outlaws, and townspeople who seemed to think there was nothing at all peculiar in planning to turnover a train and declare a republic, nevermind release Ned’s mother, and all the while animals I had never seen the like of before bellowed and roared outside the door. You’d have thought it were a new holiday someone invented, the only serious faces were those of men who arrived frequently to talk in hushed voices with Ned and Joe before disappearing out into the night again, Kelly folk, Joe told me, who were to be part of the events that happened after the police were brought down. I felt like pinching meself.
Joe was more solid now. He were Ned’s right-hand man, and whatever was going on behind those eyes, he knew he had to keep there, this was a time to be that warrior and make them all believe. He had been given one of them long drover coats and it suited him. I had to smile at him walking round with his hands in his pockets, that gun stuck down the waistband of his pants, and that intense look about him that I first saw in the bar in Beechworth as if the world was his for the asking.
Anyhow the end of the night appeared to be signalled by men falling asleep at the tables and Mrs. Jones pulling the cover over the cage of the bright red parrot on the bar. It had been taught to say “Ned Kelly” though it was much better at nipping the fingers of anyone foolish enough to get too close. Joe were on first watch and despite me protests he convinced me to go up and find a room, suggesting something about getting the bed warm, aye that might have been the winning argument, well that and a very welcome grin. To be truthful, I was fair worn out, and it was good to lie flat and feel the cool mattress under me, for all the noise to stop and to just stare at the dark ceiling.
I might have been asleep an hour or it might have been three, I had no way of knowing and I never even heard him come in the room. The next I knew, a cold body was slipping into the covers next to mine, the tip of a tongue in me ear, and a grinning whisper in his soft voice, “Well now, Evie McBride, I could have been anyone sneaking in here, you’d not have noticed.”
I could feel meself waking up as sure as if the cock just crowed—will yer stop that laughing now—aye perhaps it did. Anyhow I turned round to face him and could just feel a prickle of icy skin where our body’s touched, me breasts against his chest, and his thigh working its way between mine. “Christ Joe, you are freezin’.” I jumped when his hands reached round me back, but it were more of a shiver of something else that followed them down to me hips.
He were always good at kissing, sometimes we would do that for hours, just touching lips and tongues and sucking little teases of things, but right now he wanted to talk too. So I let him tell me how much he loved me, and how tomorrow was a big day, perhaps the biggest we ever seen, and how he wanted to have his cock in my body, and how they would have to fight like lions, and how he wanted to hear all those little noises I made when he loved me, and how if it turned out that they managed not to get shot to hell we would ride away someplace for a while, and how he wanted to open me legs wide to have all of him, and how even if they did get shot to hell, we were here now, and how he was so hard at the thought of letting go inside me that he was aching, all between kisses that made me world shrink down to right there, and well I tell yer, I was nearly done in before he did what he wanted. All the while his hands were covering me, stroking and rubbing at me breasts, pulling me hips against his and making me spine tingle, his voice all deep and soft, sometimes I could not hear it, only feel it against me skin.
“Tell me how it feels, Evie,” is what he asked me, and it weren’t about some “I am the fabulous Joe Byrne,” but I think it were about wanting to have it in his head what difference he made, if you understand me. Outside the door was a whole stage for him with his place all settled, expectations and plans, but right then he wanted to know what he did to me. Ah, and he just did have a notion of how his words made me almost beg him, so there were some of that too, don’t yer think?
“I done a load of reading, Evie,” him smiling now, his hands sliding right down over me and between me thighs, pressing them apart, “but I never found out what it feels like, never met a woman who could tell me before neither.”
It were just as well that those next door was asleep or drunk because the feel of his fingers made me cry out, I could feel me hips pressing down all the while he were swirling and moving, pulling me out of meself. It didn’t help to look at him to be honest, the look of his mouth and his face making me sway some more, a deep breath and I managed to mumble about it feeling like I was on fire or some such thing, I can’t rightly remember. What I wanted to touch him too, ah now I am blushing but I did, and I slipped me hand down over it, he were just perfect, smooth and hard like metal but warm too, and yer couldn’t help but want to make him groan.
I heard the roughness in his breath, “Tell me what it’s like to feel me fingers Evie, I want to hear yer.”
He went so deep it took me voice, I didn’t know if the sound would come out of me mouth, but I tried all the same. “Joe…your fingers feel beautiful...” It were pulling him closer too, I could feel him sliding in me hand, wet and ready for me and it made me whole body shake. I could hardly breathe nevermind talk, “It feels like every nerve knows it’s you" I stopped to cry out a bit, a few moments when i could only gasp into his mouth “right there, Jesus when you do that, is screaming with happiness…that’s what it feels like” the last bit disappearing into a moan, he was looking so dark I swear I nearly drowned.
“And if I do this?…” his thumb circled around that other place, and I think I bit his shoulder to stop meself waking the Queen herself all the way over in her palace in London, England.
”Jesus…Joe, can you not feel? Every bit of me wants you, I am soaked and all hot and I want you…Oh, will I write you a book tomorrow?” . 'Tomorrow' just stopped him for a moment. I think I just squirmed some more on his fingers, demanding “Just love me, will yer?”
He didn’t answer except to look at me, it was like slow motion—the time before you know something big is going to happen. I can recall reaching up to him but not feeling anything, not the bed I was lying on, not the air entering me mouth, only that his cock was right there, and I could do nothing else but open up to him, let him slide in so far that I couldn’t hardly focus.
”Evie, stay here with me, lass. I need you here.” His hand was on me face and his lips kissing me, bringing me back to feel it was really us, really him.
“Joe, I need yer not to stop,” me hands on that perfect curve and pulling him into me even more, almost panic in me voice, that it would be ripped from me.
”You know I can’t anyhow…” his words were failing him then too. Well we moved together in perfect timing, all full and wet, to that place we went so often, the seconds of grace before we were falling over one another. He were the best lover, maybe everyone says that about the person they want the most, but well he made me want to cover him with kisses and thank yous, and I figured he needed to know.
The next day were taken up with preparations, people arriving with the armour and guns and bullets, and me holding him tight, it were full of that too. Whatever fears we had were taken over by preparations and drinking and sometimes you even forgot why we were there. The tracks proved more difficult than they thought to pull up, but there were no shortage of volunteers—it seemed that there was some hope after all.
It were early evening when Joe took me hand and told me it we were going to take the watch on the hill. It were always possible that the coppers would be coming some other way too and we needed to know, so happy as a pig in sh!t I sailed out of there with him to sit on a cold hilltop looking down over Glenrowan.
We talked for those hours there—about me Da and about his, the way that things had turned out—it was just calm and gentle with me lying back against him, sitting as far as I could back between his legs and feeling the sound of his voice against me back. After awhile I saw him squint toward the sky, that full moon they wanted was getting lost behind a thick veil of rain clouds.
“Time we should get back to the inn?” Jesus, I was happy, funny now I think of it, but I was.
“You aren’t coming back there, Evie.”
I turned round in his lap and stared at him, me mouth open. “What do you mean? Where are we going then?”
“I mean you aren’t going back to the Glenrowan Inn, lass. Just me.”
Well he might just as well have said that me Da was an Orangeman, I was frowning and starting to pull away from him. “There’s no way you can stop me, Joe Byrne. If you think I am letting you fight down there on yer own,..” the first inklings of what he was meaning filtering through to me, ah it were all flooding back now, the dream of the last day splintering. “I can shoot and load yer gun…No Joe, you can’t do it without me…don’t…”
He looked right back at me, his eyes wandering over me face and his fingers on me lips. “I want you to stay with some folks of ours on the edge of town.”
“You are fuckin’ mad! Why would I do that?” I was struggling to find me words, my hands grabbing at his, “Joe I love you, I don’t want to live without you...Oh no, you can’t…I won’t let you.”
Jesus, he was so perfect—the lines of his bones, his mouth, his dark brown eyes—all softened by those curls that just went wherever they pleased. The first spatters of rain were falling round us and the wind picked up, but he didn’t notice, he just took me face in those big hands of his. “Evie, you are all I have.” I could feel his hands shaking, “I killed Aaron, and the coppers are coming for us. They will have plenty of guns, and they won’t care to take us alive, it’s a war and no mistake.”
I felt like a horse had kicked me in the gut, looking back up at him and breaking away to wipe me tears so I could see him better. “Joe don’t, oh Christ, don’t leave me, I don’t want to be where you aren’t, I want to come with you!” I was just sobbing loud and clutching his jacket, but he pulled me to the front of him. The rain was falling harder on us, waves of complete and utter desperation shaking through me. “Joe, you can’t ask me to do that, I can’t sit some other place while...oh Jesus, I can’t!” I wanted to hit something, just stop it from being as it was, I wanted to hold him at gunpoint, make him take me or kill me, “Joe don’t ask me...please don’t.”
“I have to and you can, me beauty. You can because you are as strong and as brave as me, and I AM asking you. I need you to be safe. Christ, I don’t want to see you like him, like Aaron.” His eyes were burning me skin, “Will yer grant me that? I love yer lass…but there will be no justice and no quarter given down there, I can’t be who I need to be and protect yer.”
I was staring back at him now shaking my head, “I don’t want you to protect me, Joe. I will stay down, I will hide out the back with the others, I will do anything you say, but not this, don’t send me away from you!”
Waves and waves of it were just crashing over me and not even his arms would secure me, more and more desperate pleas to him finding no answer, “Just shush, Evie…shush...I can’t know what will happen, lass, well I know for certain them coppers will be mad and determined, as cruel as they ever were, but there’s no way of knowing what they will do. I’ll not ask you for anything ever again, you will be free to do whatever you chose.” I was just a shivering mess in his arms, the whole of me railing against even the thought of losing him, it were a physical reaction as sure as anything, and he lifted me on to his lap “Will you do it for me, Evie? Oh for Christ’s sake…Let me do something right in me life, let me save one thing I love.”
He gathered me up and just held onto me, taking all me sobs and wails and folding them all up to save them for himself, Jesus, he would need them.
He wasn’t gonna give up, he pulled me up to untether the horses and I just staggered down the hill with him, the rain soaking through my dress and hammering onto our heads, well it weren’t no holy water and that’s for sure. I kept looking over at him, like it was not going to be this way, I wasn’t going to let it, something else should happen. Why didn’t one of them saints they always tell about, one who understands the suffering of us mortals, at least break the fucking clouds and stop it raining? But not one did, and it kept pouring water over us from someplace they call heaven.
By the time we got near to a few buildings, a new wave was building up inside me, a wail of “no” that I didn’t want to silence and the longing to hold him closer and not let go was just overwhelming me. I grabbed his hand and pulled him over to the overhang of a roof by the side of the trail to give us a little shelter. “Joe, what can I do? You are gonna go off there, and you might not come back. Oh Jesus, you might never love me again, I might not see you again, I don’t think I could live anymore!” I was just beside meself, me hands in his hair just pleading with him, ah sh!t maybe Aaron was right all along.
He were looking out at the dark sky, his hands above me shoulders, he were looking for something that would change it, but there was nothing except clouds and rain. “I have to, Evie, you know I have to.” He was holding me face then, “Kiss me...”
“Oh Jesus!” They were all-consuming and desperate kisses, his mouth and mine all open, we would have been one if we could, our hands pulling us together like we were gonna sink into the mud around our feet if we let go, our hands were all over each other, but the sound of a kerloo in the bush made us stand stock still. It were just time.
“Evie, I will never leave you, lass, I won’t, not really,” his voice were about as sore and crackly as mine. “It’s just the way things are. You wouldn’t be here if I was anyone else, now would yer?” A gentle kiss just brushed me lips then and I took a deep breath, and pulled meself up.
“No, no I wouldn’t.” Me face was searching his for any indication that he thought he wasn’t coming back, and whatever he thought, he was hiding it well.
“So you will go to the Flannigan’s and stay there tonight.”
I swallowed deep. He didn’t really look at me but took the horses’ reins and led us on to a shack just outside the town. A rap on the door was greeted by what were obviously friendly folk, but to be truthful, I had no regard for them or anyone right then.
Joe, he took me whole body in his arms, kissing me hair while I just buckled against his chest, I held him so tight like I would never let go, his whisper broke through me sobs, “You have to believe tonight, Evie, for them, promise me…”
“Then promise me you will come back.” I have to confess I couldn’t hold myself together, I have never known aching like it, if I thought I was hurting all that time ago before he came back to me, it were nothing to what I felt then and he were still in me arms.
“I can’t promise that, my beauty,” he was just holding on too. The man behind me, Mr. Flannigan, was wanting to close the door against the rain, “ but I do promise that I love yer.” Joe turned and leapt up on his horse, he leaned down to take a last touch of me face with his fingers, and then he was gone.
I am sorry. I can’t say anymore…a minute…
I don’t have a clue at all how I didn’t follow him. I thought of it a thousand times, pulled me shawl round me, walked to the door, I even opened it a few times, but Mrs. Flannigan stood in front of me to stop me getting out. “He said you would try to go, but that you mustn’t. Come on, love, come sit down. It’ll be alright, they’ve got it all planned, so they have.”
Nothing prepared me for the sound of gunfire. Despite the fact she didn’t know me from Adam nor Eve for that matter, Mrs. Flannigan let me bury me head in her lap, me hands over me ears to stop the sound of it. There were times we thought it had all stopped and we would try to look out the window, then there would be more volleys and shouts that carried over the sound of rain beating on the tin roof ‘til you couldn’t tell anymore and we just waited, the embers dying in the grate as the night drew on.
Hours later a sudden bang on the door made me already frayed nerves jump out of me skin. “The Glenrowan Inn! It’s burnin’!”
And then I ran. As the new dawn of the rest of me life broke, I ran to that place that was lighting up the sky more brightly than the sun.