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The next two days I worked just as hard, except now I had a big smile on me face whenever I thought of what me Da had said. “Common thieves and selector scum” that copper had called us, but now I knew the truth. And if I wasn’t thinking about that, I had other details in me head now too, details about Joe Byrne that I rolled round and round. Makes me smile to think now, “a barmaid and a union man’s daughter,” what a grand title I thought that was, and how it made me feel, if not his equal, then at least not to be taken for granted.

At last Friday night came and I fair skipped into the bar. All I wanted was to be able to talk to Maggie and make things right, and I wanted to have done that yesterday. Me Da had a chat with Mr. O’Leary while we set up, and between them they cooked up Christmas and me birthday all rolled into one. “No point in the lass going all that way home, Seamus, and it’s company for Maggie. Shall we say Evie stays here on the nights she works?” Me Da was more than pleased with the arrangement and settled down for a few to celebrate, laughing with his mates, the old fellas in the corner, as the place started to fill up, faces I was beginning to recognise now and some that would give me an extra tip for a smile. I caught Maggie when I could and we both knew…we would be just fine, the thought of sharing her room and having a chance to talk bringing smiles to our faces.

The arrival of Michael didn’t even knock me off me perch, though he was with a big group of lads from the stables at the big house and also seemed to think that having a barmaid for a sister was a badge to be bragged about. Several times Mr. O’Leary had occasion to tell them to keep it down, intent on raising the roof they were, and drinking like there was no tomorrow. It was on one of me trips back and again to their table that Michael’s mate Aidan grabs me hand, “What about a free drink then, Evie? Sure you can sneak one over to me, just to be friendly like.”

“And why would I be wanting to be friendly, Aidan?” Sure he was nice enough looking and broader somehow like a man, but still just one of Michael’s friends. I had never given him much mind.

“Because you like me, Michael told me so, said you might like some company and all, so well I was thinking…”

Well I was flushed red, but as much with anger as anything else. A flash of me eyes at Michael, “You can think all you like, Aidan Connelly, but the only thing free you’ll be getting is a slap around yer face!” Me parting shot though was lost in the ale and the arrogance of them boys.

“Having trouble there, Evie?” Jesus save me, but Joe was in front of me, a gentle smile and curls all every which way from his ride to get here but nevertheless smart and all buttons and soft cloth. He was different entirely from those boys, something in the air around him overpowered you, like whatever you were doing was nothing as important as breathing him in.

He bent down to catch me eyes, a grin at the way I could only shake me head, “Aye, well I thought not.” Leaning closer to me, and I swear I could feel the heat of his whisper on me ear, his mouth just inches from me skin, “Is Maggie in tonight? Only I might drop by later, will you tell her?”

I had to grab the chair beside me to keep from swaying as I took a deep breath. “Speak to him for Christ’s sake” shouting in me head. “You can tell her yerself…she is down the cellar, I think Joe,” and oh, didn’t that feel good to say his name, still feels good now as it happens.

“Ah, so you will speak to me then!” a grin that about had me on me knees, and then he looked around to see where Tom O’Leary was. “Thanks lass,” and with a touch on me arm he was gone down the steps.

I was still staring after him when me Da comes up to say goodbye, a furrow in his brow as he shook his head, “You’ll have to walk home tomorrow, Evie. I got some work to be doing.” Well it would be a long walk, but what did I care?

The next time I saw Maggie she was still tucking the hair back into the bun at the nape of her neck, a smile on her face, and it was all I could do to stop from hugging her to see her happy, well I guess he made her that too. Another busy Friday but at long last the men all went home, or as near to as they could get. Tom slid the bolt across the big wooden door, hasty goodnights were said, and we were up in her room, about ready to drop but with no intentions of sleeping.

Apologies she didn’t want at all, what Maggie wanted was to tell me why, why she needed Joe so much. With our backs against the wall and our legs under the covers, she talked and I listened, asking her to repeat and explain and giving her those “oh please tell me more” smiles. She told me how Joe had come into the bar one day after he got let out of jail for stealing the cow like me Da had said. And how his eyes had looked right at her like he picked her out, and funny enough I knew exactly what she meant.

She was laughing, “Let me tell you, well that night there’s this band playing downstairs and he asks me to dance. I couldn’t move me feet because I might just fall over, do you know what I mean Evie? The man makes you feel funny all over before he even comes close.”

I wasn’t so sure I should agree, but I nodded anyhow.

“And well he just laughed at me and smoothed me hair and told me I was his, and I am Evie, though for the life of me I don’t know what’s gonna become of it all. Anyways, after that, he came by the bar more and more, sneaking downstairs to the cellar when I went to get beer, kissing me and making me forget what I was doing there, making me want more and more every time...I bet you are thinking I am loose, aren’t ye, to let him do those things?”

The sudden sharpness of her words and her voice fair killing the smile on me lips. Me head spun round to look at her, “Jesus, Maggie, of course I don’t. Well I don’t know that it is right and all, but you are me friend.”

While I was still looking at her she let it all tumble out and me ears strained to hear every single word. “I had never been with a man before, Evie. Well you know, some boys that pulled at ye, but none of them that knew anything about it apart from the fact that their cock was aching and they thought that maybe it was time to put it somewhere other than in their own hands.”

Well she must have heard me swallow hard because she stopped a while. “Forgive me, I need to tell someone. Will ye hear me out?” I just  nodded, me eyes widening I suppose. “Right then, so anyhow, I never let any of them do it, you know, not until him. I remember it so well. Joe says he wants to show me some places up where he lives, the pools an all where he messed around as a boy, and it’s important, and will I come with him. Well of course I says yes, and he comes by here on a big horse on a Saturday afternoon, looking all smart like for a proper day out and all. Only it didn’t feel very proper. Leastways not how me Ma would see it, sitting up on that horse behind him and he rode so fast I had to put me arms round him to keep from falling off!”

I had to let out the giggle I had in me and she smiled before she continued “Aye, I thought that too…wasn’t like there was a fire or anything…Anyways, so we gets there, he even had a bit of bread and some meat from someplace and he sits on the grass by these big boulders talking, and well, if I said I ate anything I would be lying because me mouth was dry and my stomach churned all up with the sight of him. Joe though, he didn’t seem so bothered, lying there in the sun with his eyes closed. Ah, but I reckon he was testing me, or maybe letting me test meself, letting me look at his body and his legs all there, shifting so I could see the shape of him and get to thinking about what I was doing out there in the middle of nowhere with him, before he reached out for me hand.”

She reached out to take mine then, like she wanted something to hold onto, though I was sure it was a poor substitute “But I tell you Evie, he was a million miles from them boys who would have it done in a minute if you were lucky. He was gentle and slow, using his tongue like he wanted to taste everything, as if nothing would be better than spending forever doing it. I can’t exactly tell you how it feels when he kisses you, but it is like everything falls open to him, that there’s nothing you wouldn’t let him do, and there wasn’t. By the time he had pulled me dress open and exposed me breast to the air and his lips, I swear I was beside meself with wanting for him to do more. Me legs were open before he even made a move…”

I could feel her shudder, even there in her hand, and then she asked a question that made me sit stock still. “Have you ever touched yourself, Evie?” she just glanced quickly at me.

There were a few moments that felt like a thousand while that one question hung in the air, I can tell ye. Moments when I weighed up giving her what she wanted, some understanding as against the real ignorance that was all I had to offer. I settled for the truth, a deep breath, “I have started to sometimes, but then thoughts of Father O’Donaghue always get the better of me…”

There was just another moment before we both just howled with laughter, me perfectly pink and shy of looking at her, but seeing the funny side all the same.
I am not sure, but I think she sighed then. I thought she wished she had someone else to tell, but I was just desperate for her not to stop. “Go on Maggie, will ye?”

And she smiled, “Aye, I will,” and in truth I think she needed to because it brought him closer to her.

“Well anyhow, he knew I’d not been with anyone, I reckon a man like him could probably tell from across the creek in the dark,” a wry smile from Maggie that made me eyes widen a little more and me legs close together without even thinking about it. “But he asked me all the same, and whether I wanted to, all gentlemanly like he was asking if I wanted this or that for supper, but all the while his eyes searching me and his hands, Jesus, anywhere he touched was shaking and I couldn’t answer him in words, so I just closed me eyes and nodded.”

She just went quiet and I feared that she was crying, but when I lifted me head from her shoulder a wistful smile was there instead. “It didn’t hurt a bit, Evie. I thought it would, but he just moved slow at first, and well, I wanted him so bad I suppose it was just easy…but I never thought it would all fit in.” Well, there was no way we couldn’t laugh at that as soon as she looked me in the eye, both of us blushing and a little warmer somehow, laughing because well, what else was there to do?

“Maggie, can I ask you something?” She nodded. “Well…did you like it?” I don’t know how I asked really but I had to know. This was different, what I had seen last Saturday night from that closet, had been different from any notion I had in me head. Granted I had only seen the animals on the farm and heard the grunts from behind me parents’ wall, well and once years ago, Jimmy had shown me a dirty picture just to tease me.

A deep breath before she cleared her throat. “Christ, I never knew there was anything like it, never knew your body could do that to you. And when he tipped me hips somehow with his hands so…well, so I was all up against him and…it was like fainting Evie, fainting with the sheer pleasure of it.”

Well, I didn’t know what to say in truth, so I didn’t, and Maggie, she didn’t stop. “Anyways, afterward he is cuddling me and kissing me face, he knew I couldn’t speak I reckon, so he did it all for me in that soft way he does, when there is a gush of wet between me legs, and me being the fool doesn’t know what it is ‘til I sit up and see blood all mixed up with that stuff that the fellas have, and he must have seen the shock in me eyes. ‘Ah now, it’s alright, Maggie. Let me help you,’ he said all gentle, I can hear him now, ‘That always happens the first time, did your mother not tell ye?’”

“And of course she hadn’t because she didn’t want to think on it until she had to on me wedding night,” a sigh from Maggie that said it all, “and I was crying while he fetched a bit of water and a rag and handed it to me. Well anyhow, I washed and dried me dress as much as I could and all the while him watching me and holding out his hand and saying come sit down with me, and oh Evie, as frightened and scared as I was of it all, I never regretted that afternoon one bit. I can’t explain it, I just can’t, but it felt right to be out there in the middle of the bush in just me underclothes and letting him do that because, whatever the priest says, it was right because I wanted him and he wanted me too.”

I don’t know if she could tell by me face but I felt like I had heard all her sins, and the trouble was, I wasn’t the least bit able to give absolution. “Ah, come on now Evie, give me a few Hail Mary’s and I’ll be done,” she teased, but we both knew, so I did the only thing I could and hugged her tight.

I must have fallen asleep thinking about it, because next thing I know it is morning, and I am still dressed, Maggie too, but that was alright anyhow. Still early mind, and I laid there a few minutes more, questions in me mind that wouldn’t go away, well there were thousands all piled up there, but mostly I just felt happy that she was my friend and that she trusted me. I climbed out of bed while she woke, chatting about the bar and saying see you later and all, before I headed off out to the street for me long walk back home.

On account of all the spring rain the street was full of potholes and puddles, some so deep you could lose yer leg in the mud, so I kept to the porches, glancing in at the windows as I passed by, stopping sometimes to marvel at the things a body could buy if she had the money and the inclination, though quite what you would want with it all, I couldn’t make out.

I was just stepping down on to the track that headed out of town and eventually to our shack when I hears a shout behind me, “Hold up, Evie lass! Where would you be going in such a rush?” A familiar voice it was and I turned to see Aaron Sherritt step out of the doorway to that place that sold tobacco, Joe behind him, engrossed in lighting the cigarette in his mouth but a big smile when he saw me.

This was getting to be a habit of his, taking me words away when I least expected it, but I was as determined as I could be when faced with this man who I had only hours ago heard could make your body faint with pleasure, so I spoke with the bravest voice I could, “Good morning, Aaron...Joe. Well if you must know, I am on me way home.”

Aaron was looking at me hard. “Well now, if you can wait an hour, I’d be pleased to escort ye, make sure you get home safe like.”

Joe was smiling as he shook his head, “Jesus, she’d be safer with a copperhead.”

I only just caught that, but anyway I knew better. “No, well thank ye anyhow, but I got to get back. We still got some planting to do and all.”

Joe just grins at Aaron. “Anyway, I am going that way, got to call on Ned, being as he’s just out of jail. His mother’s got a selection a way on from Greta, a couple of miles past yours, Evie.”

Since I had no idea who he was talking about and it just occurred to me Joe Byrne was offering to walk me home, I just held me breath and said nothing, but there was a conversation all in looks and hands going on between them two that I was just on the edge of understanding.

Aaron’s parting words as I started walking being “You keep your word, now…remember the deal,” and I could feel me hackles rise. A quick glance sideways that I wish I hadn’t taken and “What is he talking about, Joe?”

You could almost hear the conversation in his mind, a lie or the truth? What will get me out of this one the easiest? He cleared his throat and then right out with it, “Aaron reckons he should have you since me and Maggie are…well...”

And if I hadn’t already be angry I wouldn’t have said it, but I was, “You and Maggie are what?”

Now I think on it, maybe I was asking for meself, though I didn’t want to admit it at the time. I wanted to know what it all was, and God help me, what it might mean to be one of his “other women.”

“Me and Maggie are courtin’.” He was looking at me with interest now, a crease at the edge of his eyes, “Ah, but you know that already, don’t yer? You know exactly what me and Maggie are doing.”

And of course he just wiped me clean off me feet. I didn’t know where to look and settled on me shoes, willing them to keep moving forward.

It was several minutes before either of us spoke, but then he touched me shoulder, “Ah, will you come on now, Evie? We’ve a long walk, be a crime to do it in silence, wouldn’t you say?”

And from somewhere I got the courage or the well…what to call it now? Maybe the deviliry, but whatever it was, I turned and smiled at him. What I got in return made the whole of me flush, a wink and an arm held out for me to slip mine through, “Well, that’s just grand then.” The cloth of his jacket was rough against me skin but in truth everything else was tingling too much to notice.

From then on he talked—about his family and their selection, about his friend Ned Kelly and how he had been unlawfully imprisoned—and me just listening to the sound of his voice and feeling the brush of his body against me arm, and it was all to soon that we were across the ford of Oven’s River and in sight of where I lived. On the brow of the hill we stood looking down, “ I best be going now.”

And I didn’t want him too. Lord help me, I wanted him to let me hold onto him, but he drew away. Bending to catch me eyes, “Thanks for the company, lass.”

I watched him walk away, his long legs and easy walk that was like he just expected the earth to carry him wherever he wanted to go, and then he looked back, “We never shook on it, Evie, me and Aaron.”

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