|When Ned left, Tom looked almost relieved and the
coppers looked cheated somehow, like they had been waiting for a fight,
any excuse to pull them truncheons out, and then had it whipped away
from them, leaving them standing there and looking foolish. Those that
were still there in the bar breathed a sigh of relief when the coppers
drained their glasses and moved out into the road. Although by the
looks on them coppers’ faces you would have pitied whoever it
was they ran into on the way.
The bar was emptying fast and as I cleared the tables I had a rare feeling—pleasure at the sight of Michael sitting round with his mates. “Michael can I walk home with you?” I sort of hissed in his ear, but him being him, he wouldn’t let me get away with just that.
“Hey Aidan! Evie wants to come home with us. See what did I tell you?” that sort of drunken laugh that made me clench me teeth, and I could have hit him.
“For the love of Mary, will ye stop being an idjut and wait for me to finish me shift will ye?” Something must have filtered through his beer-soaked brain because he looked serious, just for one second mind, and said “aye.”
I felt bad for Maggie. I didn’t want to quite catch her eye, but also I needed to be on me own, to try and remember it all, to try and feel that kiss again and pretend Joe wasn’t gone. I made me excuses and at last got me things and stepped out into the night to find both Michael and Aidan sitting on the step. “What is he doing here still, Michael? We are just walking home is all…Christ,” I muttered under me breath and somehow confessing it all to Maggie didn’t seem quite so bad compared to walking the few miles back home with these two.
The walk had never seemed so far, with interruptions from Aidan, him trying to grab me hand and start conversations I didn’t want to hear, breaking me out of trains of thought and feelings I just wanted to sink into. “Will ye let go of me hand,” I said for the hundredth time. I might not have bothered so much if Joe hadn’t been in me head and Aidan hadn’t been as drunk as Michael; Aidan was an alright looking fella to tell the truth.
Anyhow we were just nearing the rise that leads over to our place when I sees a man on a horse under the wattle tree. As our not-so-merry band drew closer he slid off the saddle and leaned back against the trunk, a flash of sulphur and I just knew it was Joe. Jesus, he had come back for me, and I didn’t know whether I was happy or as scared as a roo in a bush fire.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Michael says as we get near enough to speak.
“Michael, for Christ’s sake, will you stop that now.” I could feel me face burning red.
“No, I won’t. I seen you ‘round me sister, and she’s already spoken for so you’d better just get back home.”
Well, I wished the ground had swallowed me…or Michael at the least, but Joe just leaned away from the tree slowly and dropped the rollup he was smoking onto the earth, crushing it under his heel. “Is that right now?” a little grin at me that nearly had me moan, “and who is speaking for Evie then? Seems to me she can talk for herself.”
But Michael wasn’t listening. “Aidan here, me mate Aidan, that’s who she is with,” the slur in his words giving him away.
I was pleading with Michael with me eyes, but he was both drunk and, though I shouldn’t say it about me own brother, a bit short of a guinea at times. “Michael will you just leave it? I don’t need your protection. I’ll not be long, get along home now.”
“That’s just it Evie. Don’t you know this fella has girls all over Beechworth, Greta, and Sebastapol? And now since he is sniffing round me sister like a scabby dingo, I’d have to disagree about the protection. What d’yer say, Aidan?”
Jesus, well I thought Joe would hit him for sure now, but his voice was level and quiet, “How many women I have is none of your concern, Michael,” like that was the final thing to be said on the matter. Me brother just stood there open-mouthed that Joe wasn’t denying it, and Aidan looking anywhere but at Joe.
And Joe, well he always did know when to confront something and when his charm might work best. He holds his hand out to shake Michael’s, “Though it is a fine goal, to be sure, protecting your sister. If you boys come visiting mine, I’ll be sure to keep an eye.”
As ever with Joe, you had to think just as hard about what he didn’t say as much as those gentle words that crept out of his mouth, Michael was already halfway down the hill before he figured it out and I was still on the “what are you doing here?” part of the conversation when Joe took me hand and sat down. Well there didn’t seem anything else to do except sit next to him, all of me nerves jingling with the brush of his hand against me leg.
I don’t know whether it was that I had his hand that made me brave, whether it was just the middle of the night after what felt like the longest day I had ever had, or whether it was the way that he made you lose any notion of what was right, but anyhow it just came out of me mouth, “What ARE you doing here, Joe?”
I was listening for everything—the crickets, the wind in the grass, but especially for a sound from him—and I swear I heard his lips part and his breath in, “Well, lass, I could still feel that kiss…”
Holy Mary! If I could feel me body respond to his words, then when I glanced sideways at him, sitting there next to me with his dark eyes smiling as deep as his mouth, well now I flushed all over me skin, every inch of it. But I hadn’t finished yet, clearing me throat, “And do you have women all over Beechworth, Greta, and Sebastapol?”
This time he didn’t say it was none of my concern; what he did was let go of me hand and lie back to look at the sky. I could have cursed! Ah, I did want to know, but at the same time, whether he had kissed all the women in the whole of Australia was less important than whether he was gonna kiss ME next. The wind was catching his curls and the moonlight touching the folds of cloth over his body, and I wanted to touch him, but whilst I was busy getting washed away, he had obviously been thinking.
“Well I’ll not lie to you, Evie. Besides Maggie, there are others for sure, but you’ll not need to know all their names.”
I think I winced and it was on the tip of me tongue to say “sorry” for even asking, but I dragged me mind back to what I needed to know. “And what about Maggie? Will you be marrying her?”
I saw him sit up, and he looked at me quizzical, “Did she tell you that, lass?” Christ, he was beautiful.
“No, no she didn’t, I was just thinking…I thought maybe after all…yer know,” stumbling over me words like an idjut meself, but I needed to hear it from him.
He just kept looking at me, all over me eyes and me cheeks and me lips as if he was already touching me. “Ah no, we’ll not be marrying.”
There was a pause while he let me think on that, and maybe himself too, about Maggie, and then he said quiet as you like and I wasn’t even sure it was to me, “Whether she knows it or not, she wants more than a larrikin like me.”
Well, I could have cried, hearing him and thinking of her weeping about how he wasn’t there to cuddle her in the morning. And how he was answering me when I don’t suppose I had any business asking anyhow.
“So what are you thinking, Evie? Is that what you need to know, fer now anyways?” Jesus, he could see all through me with those eyes, and he just smiled, picking up me chin with his fingers. “Anyhow, it’s my turn for a question now. Ah, what shall it be? Well since it’s still on me mind… Are you gonna let me feel that kiss again before yer Ma comes up that hill with a shotgun?”
His hand just ran down me spine soft to help me decide, and I let his arms carry me down next to him. I don’t mind admitting I was shivering with the wait and the nearness of his body, before he even touched me.
And then he did, and I closed me eyes to feel his hands stroking over me arms and me neck while he kissed me, all gentle and breathless, only this time, now so far from day and work and me family and me normal life it seemed, I kissed him back. Not that I knew what to do exactly, but Christ, it just seemed like natural, and the more I did, the harder he pressed back against me tongue, and the tighter he held me.
Me head was getting dizzy for feeling him getting lost to it all too, and I got the smallest notion of why I was there—beyond him being the finest looking man I ever saw. He made me, Evie McBride, feel strong, because I could make him want me. And maybe he might even need me.
Ah! Listen to me now…I am not so sure I worked all that out there and then, I’ve had some years to think on it and no mistake. I was also caught on the feel of those curls through me fingers when I finally got up the courage to reach up and try, caught on how his touch made me skin tingle like it just got christened, little sweeps of his thumbs around where me buttons stopped that made me gasp. Oh and Jesus! When his leg brushed against mine I swear he knew that had he already asked if he could do more, aye and he probably knew the answer too!…Anyhow I suppose you could say that with all that, it was a wonder I heard the voice that I did, dragging me back to the hill by our selection.
I sat up suddenly, Joe already on his feet. “Mary? Is that you?”
“Evie...thank God!” She was panting and bent double catching her breath, gasping out words that I eventually worked out. “Fitzpatrick is at the house, him and another copper…they are asking for you.”
“What?” was the best I could manage.
“Aye, well he says he knows it was you who told the Kelly Gang that the police was onto them.” Joe was changed in a moment, it was hard to imagine that only a few seconds before he had been kissing me sweet, now he was tall and straight and the moon was finding sharp edges.
“And why would they be thinking that?” I don’t think Mary had any option but to answer him even though he’d never spoken to her before in her life and this was no “how do you do?”
Mary was panting and whispering both, that Fitzpatrick had been to the Kelly’s and found the horses gone, figured someone had warned them, and that he knew it was me, that he heard me name in the bar, and anyhows he’d been already to see Tom O’Leary and found me gone, and that about put the tin lid on it. The coppers intended to take me to the station and question me.
Speaking quickly now she says me Da went out to fetch the whiskey to keep the coppers occupied like, well everyone knew Fitzpatrick liked a drink, and they seemed content to sit and wait for me to come home. All the while she was talking I kept looking at Joe, but his eyes was fixed on our shack, some decision being argued for and against in his head, whether to go down there or not, I shouldn’t wonder.
“Oh Christ, Mary! What’ll I do?” I admit I was scared out of me wits. The thought of being taken off by those coppers who didn’t flinch from touching you in a public bar, never mind what would happen in a cell, and I felt me skin go cold. We all knew stories of how they did their interrogating alright. You were already guilty by the fact of being Catholic anyhows, but the manner of getting information from yer, well I suppose that was different if you were a woman.
“Ma whispered to me to come find you. Michael nearly gave it away with all his cursing when he got back, but anyhow, I slipped out the back while Da was talking. She said to tell you to go to Aunt Bridget in Oxley, says start along the way, wait at the crossing over the King River, and she’ll send Jimmy out to catch up to you as soon as them coppers are gone.”
I was not sure how much more God intended to fill this day with, but right then me eyes were wide and scared and angry too, I couldn’t believe how it had all turned so quickly and so badly. A bit sorry for meself, I said, “I don’t know the road to Oxley, Mary, not in the dark leastways.”
Then Joe’s voice was clear in the night air, sharp and full of the sort of hatred that it takes years to build up, “I am sorry, lass, this isn’t your fight, and if Ned was here, we’d go see them off, the bloody cowards. They’ve nothing on us, the bastards! It’s just like they always do, come up bragging and carrying on like they got evidence—and they never have—we made certain of it anyhow, the horses are all gone.”
And as scared as I was, it all welled up in me chest—me Da, Jimmy, those coppers spitting “selector scum,” the shit-pile of mud we had to dig, and then me Da all over again, and well like I say, Joe always dragged whatever it was that was real out of yer. “But it is Joe, it is me fight. I am Irish, and if I had anything like the faith me Ma says I should, it would be the Virgin Mary guiding me. Those coppers and the squatters always make it our fight, don’t they? Isn’t that what this is about?”
Mary was just beside herself, “Evie, Ma says you gotta go! Will ye just go before they see you?”
But Joe was looking at me, thinking about them scales and the weights I had just placed in them, wondering what they were made of, and then a nod, “You’d be safer if I took you.”
Well I nearly laughed out loud, and I know he caught it too. “You know they will ask around, Evie, find out where all yer family live too and come knocking like they have tonight, just for the hell of it, just because they didn’t catch Ned or me, or maybe just because they can. Evie lass, you need to get out of here.”
And then the penny dropped good and proper, he was asking me to go with him. If I had felt a lurch across a line when I told Aaron me name all those weeks ago, now I felt like I was at the side of some ravine about to topple on account of the height and the wind all round me. I didn’t hardly notice he was guiding me arm back to where his horse was still tied to the wattle tree, but as he swung himself into the saddle I caught me breath.
“Joe, I can’t go off with you, I have to go to Aunt Bridget’s. I have to do what me Ma wants.”
I watched his brow furrow, Christ knows what he was thinking, but whatever it was, he decided to keep it to himself. “Then let me take you, Evie.” His hand stretched out to me and he pulled me up into the saddle in front of him.
“Tell Ma that Joe Byrne is taking me, Mary.” Just for a moment it crossed me mind that this might not give me Ma any comfort at all, but well, even if it wouldn’t, I knew I didn’t want to walk there by meself, and whatever else she thought of Joe, she knew he could ride a horse and get me there without falling in the river.
We set out at quite a pace, seemed like he wanted to put some miles between us and the coppers as fast as he could. Me mind suddenly lighting on each new consequence of all this—I would lose me job for certain, and then when would I see me Da, and after that what about me few belongings. There was only one thing certain, and that was Joe’s body against mine, and I pulled his arm tighter just to make sure.
And Christ it was better than walking anywhere as I recall. There I was sitting between his legs, not to put too fine a point on it, with one arm around me waist and me back pressed against his chest, and if it hadn’t been for the coppers, I might have burst with happiness.
We slowed down after we crossed the King River, the plains spread out in front of us and Oxley just ahead. It had been a long time since I had been there, but I don’t think me mind wanted to remember, in truth. Everything had changed in this one day. For as long as I could remember, I always knew more or less what would happen the next day, the next week, the next season, and now I didn’t know anything, not even what would happen in the next few hours, nothing. And it all caught up with me because I knew he would be gone soon too.
We were nearing Aunt Bridget’s shack on the outskirts of the town when I heard me voice crack, “Joe, will I see you again?”
He leaned forward and kissed me neck, just soft, “Aye, of course you will lass, but I can’t say when. The coppers will be on our backs, and well, we found a new route into New South Wales over the Murray River for the horses and cattle, yer know, to make some money and all. I did come back for that kiss Evie, but also to tell you that we’ll be gone awhile this time.”
And he just let me cry quiet, holding me tight, “Ah it will be alright, you’ll see now,” but nothing else either of us could do anyhow, life being just like that. When I finally pointed out Aunt Bridget’s shack Joe slipped out of the saddle and lifted me down, and for the second time that night I clung onto his jacket.
“Evie…go and knock. I best be going.” A finger on me lips when he saw me start to sob,
“Ah, come on now, you’re Seamus McBride’s daughter, isn’t that right?” I nodded a little, while he smiled at me, “That’s what I thought.”
Joe wrapped me up in his arms and I could only just breathe, warm and as safe as anything felt right then and just holding on. “Goodbye Evie,” and before I could stop him he was in the saddle again. I stood and watched him ride off into the dark, rooted to the spot as sure as one of those weeds that seemed so fond of our potato field.
Me Aunt Bridget’s shack was all dark when I rapped on the window for what seemed like an age, and I swear she didn’t recognise me when she first opened the door, but considering the late hour and the fact that I was making no sense anyhow, she just wrapped me in a blanket and let me be.
When I woke a few hours later I could hear Jimmy in the room, and I pretended to be asleep.
“What was she thinking, Jimmy? Cathleen should ha’ known I can’t keep the girl.”
“Ah, don’t you be worrying yerself, Bridget. She says to give you this bit of money, but she already sent word to an old friend of hers, a Mrs. Rankin I think she said, whose husband owns a shop to see if she can get Evie a job there. And Ma says it’s far enough away from trouble, being in Jerilderie.”
I listened to these plans being made for me and held the blanket tight, willing Joe’s arms back around me again, and if I missed the feel of him already, it would be another 3 long years before I ever saw him again.