|Three years—well it was a lifetime and
that’s for sure—three years wasted,
that’s how I feel sometimes when I think of him. But those
years changed me, and just maybe that was part of the plan.
If I had thought things had been sent into a spin by God that one summer day in 1876 when I had to leave Beechworth, I didn’t know the half of it. It was less than a week before Jimmy arrived back at Bridget’s with what passed for me belongings, a note from me Da saying not to worry written in that thick heavy hand he had, the address where I was to call, and a note for Mr. and Mrs. Rankin, shopkeepers in Jerilderie. I presumed that the note confirmed me as Aoife McBride, eldest daughter of Cathleen, hardworking ex-barmaid at the Commercial in Beechworth. I doubted it said “running away from the coppers and fond of consorting with known villains” since this was unlikely to get them to offer me some work and lodgings, though it wasn’t far from the truth.
But I didn’t want to be an ex-barmaid at the Commercial. I wanted to be back there with Tom and Maggie and all them old boys. I wanted to be cuddled up with Maggie after a Friday shift and laughing with her about things that now seemed so far away I wasn’t even sure I hadn’t dreamt them, as if that was some other Evie, and maybe it was.
I missed me Da and Mary, Sean, and even Michael. Aunt Bridget had proved to be good company, and I wondered how she had ever come from the same stock as me Ma, but even so, now that me Ma wasn’t there, I felt the lack of her as well. And if all that wasn’t enough, to put the tin lid on it, I had felt him, Joe Byrne, and now he was gone too.
Jimmy, on the other hand, was full of it, and on the long ride to Jerilderie he talked to me like he never had before, as if I already was this someone else, no child anymore but a co-conspirator, a rebel, a comrade, whatever you want to call it, and maybe you just want to call it criminal, but anyways I wasn’t quite sure yet whether I wanted to be one or not, in truth. He told me all about the horse stealing and the cattle rebranding, the contacts he had who would sell the horses on to folks in New South Wales, and how the coppers would be pulling their beards out with the madness of nearly, but not quite, catching him. He was a bit quieter when he talked about home. Me Ma had been sobbing and blaming me Da for getting me work in the bar in the first place, and him, well Jimmy said Da had been drinking, and for Jimmy to notice, I guessed it must have been more than a few.
Anyhow, all that’s another story. At the time I was nodding but really thinking about how the miles were growing between all that I knew and where I was headed. I could feel me stomach squeezing by the time we rode into Jerilderie, bigger again than Beechworth, streets off the main one there were, women in fine dresses and bonnets and it weren’t Sunday neither.
Ah, I could tell ye about the Rankin’s and me time in their shop. Truth was old Mr. Rankin was more friendly than his wife, a bit too friendly as a matter of fact, and she seemed to think I was aiming to step into her shoes as quick as a flash. Nothing was further from me mind, on account of the fact he was big and hairy and for all their airs and graces, they was scratching a living like the rest of us. Anyhow, by the time I took me leave of there, I was about full of “the inventory” and “the books.” The only thing I liked there was the newspapers which arrived once a week. Me mouth was open wide reading the headlines, squinting me eyes to read about places in Europe called things I couldn’t even say, and always there were pages about what was called the Indian Wars in America.
Me Da always said that if he’d been put on a boat, why couldn’t it have sailed to America instead of this hole, but from what I could see in the glances I took at the papers on the counter, things didn’t seem so good there either, well least not for the Indians, as they was called. I read about men called things like Chief Dull Knife and Crazy Horse, massacres, and what was it now?... Reservations, aye that’s it! The big pictures that the little newspaper type planted in my brain would leave my head spinning and then I would look up shocked to find meself still in the Rankin’s shop.
I could tell ye about the big house I worked at next as a scullery maid, preparing endless meat and scaling fish and scouring pots and pans ‘til me own fingers were raw. I wondered how they ever ate it all, well that and how it was indecent to have so much and care about it so little. For my part, I saved whatever I could of my so-called wages and kept it under me bed to take home. Funny I still thought of home as being with me Ma and Da, well I did until I got that little room at the bar.
See after working as scullery maid, I went back to doing what I was most suited for—serving beer and wiping tables—in The Royal Mail it was, just one of the five bars in town, and for the first time in months I had me own place where I could take a breath, just shut the door and dream and wonder. Sometimes I sat on me little metal bed and just stared for hours at the walls before I went to sleep, it being the only time when no one was telling me to do this or do that…“fetch another crate will ye Evie”, “work another shift will ye Evie”, “stand on yer head and smile at the same time Evie!” All the same, me little room reminded me of Maggie, and of Joe, with its little light and the bed, it even had a small closet. And well, I suppose I don’t mind telling ye that Father O’Donaghue’s face had long since stopped troubling me in the night.
Oh I had some relations with what you might call men, it was just part of how I lived, how we all did, young women working all round them everyday. I have no tale to tell ye, not like Maggie had to me, and I half-wished she never had told me neither because what I got the first time made me cry. There was no rag to wash myself with, no warm cuddle, and certainly no feeling like I had fainted with pleasure, Christ! Ah, he wasn’t unkind…well anyhow, the less said the better. After that I went with a fella every now and again, I don’t even rightly know why, maybe I was hoping that one of them would make me feel better than Joe could, better than just the kisses Joe had given me, but they never did and the trying made me feel, well, like it was all nothing anyhow.
Months turned into a year, I even went to visit me Ma and Da once or twice on a Sunday, but while we cried and hugged and told all the news, there was too much gone by already that I couldn’t even try and catch up with, even if I ran with all me strength. But anyways, I shouldn’t complain, I had the whole day off and me Ma did always cook me favourite stew, thick and full of tatties it were, and I’d smile at her and make her happy. The money I pressed into her hand brought a smile to her face too, though I never could quite look in me Da’s face as I handed it over. And when the sun set and Jimmy took me back over the river, it always felt as if there were a hundred conversations that hadn’t been finished, like them drunks in the bar that start to tell you a story, and in the time it takes to serve them a pint they’d gone and lost the thread of it. Well all except once, which I am just coming to.
One time me Da sneaked out to tell me that he still went to the Commercial and that they’d all been asking about me. He tapped his nose with a smile. “Maggie says to say hello when I saw you, and well, I had occasion to thank Joseph for making sure you was safe that night.” It all seemed so long ago even then, but I smiled back all the same, although in truth me eyes were searching Da’s face. He looked older than the picture in me mind, Christ, the whole place looked older and more tattered too.
“Ah, did ye? And what did he say, Da?”
He started to say and then frowned, his eyes flashing with something like pain and anger all in one, forgetting what he’d been holding onto for so long, what he was waiting to tell me. I was aching, watching him play it in his mind. I could see that he wanted me to still need him for something, me—no longer his little Evie standing right there but someone else, a woman grown—and it had all just hit him that here he was, unable to do that very thing.
A pause when I thought he might explode before his beer bottle hit the wall making me step back. “He said…ahh what did he say?…I tell ye, Evie, I am losing me effin mind.”
“Da, it’s alright, it doesn’t matter.” Me hand went out to touch his arm and I could have cried, after all me Da had put up with in his life, here he was more bowed than I ever saw him before all because he couldn’t remember. “It doesn’t matter, Da.”
And for the first time in years I heard him shout at me. “Yes it does, Evie!” A breath before he sighed, “It bloody does because he said ‘You must be proud of her, Mr. McBride.’ Aye that’s what he said, and I am, lass, I am. Yer mother blames Joseph, of course she does, but well, you and I know them coppers’ would be after anyone who as much as blinks in their direction. I am past it Evie, I know I am,” just a stroke of his hand on me hair, “but you’ll do the right thing, you are me daughter…”
Well, me eyes were filling up, I had never done a thing to make him proud of me, not anything that came to me mind right then anyhow, but me protests were all swallowed by him holding his hand up. “And Joseph he gave me something to give you. We’d not seen any of them for a good long while, Tom was breathing a sigh of relief I can tell ye, but then Joseph came in the bar with that Ned and Aaron…” Me Da went off behind the shack to where he kept his beer and returned holding a small card box
“What is it?” I wiped me hand across me face to soak up the wet and salt that was stinging me skin now, and frowned at him.
“Take a look. Seems like a funny sort of a thing to give to a girl,” a smile from him, “a woman, I was meaning. But then Patrick always did say that Joseph was a law unto himself, even as a lad.”
In the shadow that was now threatening to wrap us up, I held the box in me hand and lifted the top, a little tremble in me fingers. What was in there just made me frown all the more, well maybe I was expecting that he’d stolen me a wedding band or something, maybe me heart missed a beat or two with some silly notion, I can’t say for sure, but anyhow it was more beautiful than anything made by a pair of hands. Inside lay a tiny blue egg protected in some torn pieces of paper and lying as perfect as the day he put it in there. A flash went through me mind of his fingers holding that delicate, thin thing carefully so as not to break it.
Me Da’s voice made me jump. “Like I say, a funny thing to give ye, but he said you would understand.” I nodded but I am not sure that I did understand right then, not other than that Joe had given me something, something important, and that meant he hadn’t forgotten me either.
Aside from the Rankin’s shop, a bar really was the best place to work if ye wanted to keep up with all that was going on in Victoria, New South Wales, aye maybe the whole of Australia, on account of the gossip and the occasional traveller passing through. Me ears pricked up every time I heard anything about coppers and horse stealing, well ye never knew what you might hear. I was on one of me many extra shifts that week in early summer of 1878, when I heard news that made me skin come out on goose pimples and me stomach turn over.
An older man was sitting at the bar, been travelling he said, selling bibles and curiosities all over “Queen Victoria’s Colony,” like he was proud of his contribution to such a place. Anyhow, I wasn’t paying him much mind, taken a dislike to his smarmy smile and his thin fingers I had, when he says, “And I have it on good authority that them Kelly boys are being hunted for the shooting of a Constable Fitzpatrick, don’t you know.”
I think I stopped breathing, it took a few seconds before I realised that beer was flowing over the top of the glass I had under the tap. The man knew he had the attention of us all, and played on it, taking a long gulp of his beer before he continued. “It just so happens I had a very advantageous financial dealing with Moss Finch, the maker of some very fine saddles over in Mansfield.” Just to emphasise the point he insisted on patting his pocket, a thin smile on his lips.
“Where was I? Ah yes. Moss Finch had a need for a quantity of beeswax to smooth the leather straps he was making for the undertaker, on special request of the Victoria Police. What do you say to that then? Seems those Kelly boys and a couple of their criminal, well one hesitates to call them ‘friends’ since that would point to a degree of refinement that they do not possess, anyway I hear there were four of them on the run, which I think you will agree proves they are guilty as sin itself, and Sergeant Kennedy does not intend taking the buggers alive.”
Well I don’t suppose that man had ever been treated to as many beers before, but it had little to do with anyone wanting him as a mate, and all to do with wanting to hear more. In any case it were better for his sake that he were drinking in the Royal Mail and not the Woolpack down the road, I doubt that he’d have got out of there alive, Mary Jordan running one of the roughest bars in New South Wales and well known for her rebel views. In the course of the evening the man told us how those “blaggards” as he called them had shot and injured poor Constable Fitzpatrick who had been lawfully going about his business, how Ned’s Ma had been arrested with a babe in her arms, how Ned’s sisters were an awful bunch of banshees, and how the coppers were right at this very moment, no doubt, bringing the bodies back on the undertaker’s, furnished with his own beeswax, a fact that seemed to make him extremely happy.
I felt sick to me stomach, suddenly unable to add up the pennies for the price of a drink and fumbling over the glasses. What I needed to know, and what he was keeping from us, if he knew, was who the others were, Jesus, whether Joe was on the run with Ned, whether Joe was lying on one of those stretchers too. Despite how this man made me skin crawl, I talked to him, made out I was interested in his business and what he sold. And not to blow me own pipe, but the attentions of a young woman who, if you don’t think me vain to say, was prettier than most who would have come his way, loosened his tongue some more.
But I must not have been as clever as I thought I was, and he guessed that I had more than a passing interest in what he had to say. He hinted that he knew more and started to look at me in that way that men do, like they think you are smaller and weaker then them, at their mercy if you please, and all the while I was on the edge of tears wondering about Joe. “I might be of a mind to tell you some more after you finish work,” he says, “got lodgings I have upstairs.”
God help me—Joe, if you are listening, well sometimes I can still feel you, so maybe you are—I couldn’t do it, and for all that I wanted to know everything that he did, I knew that you would understand, so I told him to eff off and held me hand as steady as I could until the end of me shift.
It was the worst night of me life, well I thought so at the time, I couldn’t sleep a wink, opening and closing that box with the egg, and for the first time in years, praying to God. And whilst we’d not spoke in a long time, He should have been impressed with all that I offered Him. Christ, I swapped my soul for Joe’s that night, well I figured that up ‘til now I had sinned the least. I could almost smell the gun smoke and the beeswax.
But as the days and weeks went on and there was no news of the capture nor death of the “Kelly Gang” as they were beginning to be called, me spirits started to rise and I might even have started to believe that bastard had made it all up. Then, months after, I heard something that brought it all back to the front of me mind.
Me mate Rosie, who worked in the Woolpack, tells me that the Kelly boys were still on the run, and that Mary Jordan was offering cut-price drinks to celebrate as another week passed that they were free. Rosie lowered her voice though when she told me the next bit, and I felt the ground move under me feet. “They killed three coppers though, Evie, shot ‘em dead in cold blood at Stringybark Creek, that’s what people are saying anyhow.”
The stories grew and grew as the days passed, how Ned had cut off Sergeant Kennedy’s ear, how they had all put bullets in the coppers’ bodies to make a point, how they’d stolen all the coppers’ personal belongings, and how they got away with a whole load of guns, in particular a Spencer repeating rifle. I confess I had no idea what one of those was, but it seemed to be the object of some wonder to the men sitting at the bar. The “Mansfield Murderers” they became, though truthfully most of the people who called them that didn’t seem to care much either way.
It weren’t long after that that I woke up one morning to the sound of hammering outside. Half asleep still I opened the window to be greeted by the face of Ned Kelly, only it looked like the person drawing it needed some more practice, well that and a decent likeness to work from. Ned’s face was pulled all askew to make him look mean and cruel around the eyes and underneath it all a notice, “WANTED” it said in big letters that I didn’t have to squint to read, and then a sum of money that made me stomach churn. Whatever they had or hadn’t done, and me Da had taught me enough about the lies that could be told about ye, there was no doubting that the coppers were intent on taking a price.
It was sort of easier once I knew for certain Joe was alive, and the news from Euroa confirmed it
“Bank Held Up By Kelly Gang” it said on the newspaper headline. I scoured the print and then in one lurch of me stomach I saw his name.
One of the gang, by the name of Byrne, stood guard over the prisoners, all of them threatened by the guns trained on them, while the other three ruffians went to Euroa Bank. Mr. and Mrs. Scott could only watch helplessly as the bank vault was raided and then suffer themselves and their children to be taken hostage.
I had never bought a newspaper before, but this one I did so I could read it over and over in me room, like if I read it enough it would tell me more, reward me for me perseverance or something, but it never did so. I took to frequenting the Woolpack in me time off. The people there, for the most part anyhow, had sympathies with the Kelly Gang, “our boys” they called them, and whilst I said only a little about how I knew Joe, it felt better to be with people who didn’t want to see them dead, and to hear his name. It helped me to hear his name.
It were just the beginning of the new year when at the end of a shift I had an envelope shoved into me hand by the landlord. “Been around a bit by the looks of it.” I just frowned at the thing in my hands, the writing nothing like me Da’s, a stamp that I could hardly read the date but looked like it had been posted in November, and a couple of addresses of sorts crossed out and new ones squeezed into the spaces.
I don’t think I ever took the stairs so quick, bolting the door behind me and sitting on me bed just looking at it, I could almost hear me own heart, never mind feel it in my chest. Turning it over and over in me hands then, almost too afraid to open it in case it wasn’t from him until I finally slid me finger under the seal.
Christ, I can’t tell you what it felt like just to see “Joe” written at the bottom of the page. Carefully formed letters covered the page, but I could hardly read for crying, I sort of didn’t care what it said at all, but when a splash of a tear hit the page and ran into the ink I was brought right back there. Let me read some of it to yer.
I always thought a letter should start with a “how do you do? but as I don’t even know where you are for sure, whether you would even want to hear from me anymore, nor whether you will ever read this, there is no point in asking, so I will just tell ye that I miss you, lass. I have seen your Da. He said you were safe, and of that I am glad. Even thinking of you holding this paper is enough to make me smile. I hated to say goodbye to you, and I meant to come to you as soon as things had quieted down, but I never thought it would be this long. You will have heard, no doubt, the circumstances of why.
I wish to tell you some things, Evie, the truth about the matters you know about, and to make you understand some others too.
He says here about how Fitzpatrick had been drunk and full of lies as ever, that Ned had in fact dressed Fitzpatrick’s hand after he was shot. In great detail, ah that was always Joe, he tells how Scanlon, Lonigan, and Kennedy came to be killed, about the undertakers he smashed up with his own hands, and then
Believe me, I had nothing more than a broken stick wrapped in a blanket at the time. We wanted their horses, and they fired at us. Dan was injured, and the rest of us so sickened by the blood, smell, and the flies, not to say the offence we had committed, that it was like our souls were jumping in our skins. Ned said not much else but that he wanted them to surrender. He even took down a letter from Kennedy to send to his wife, but the words got washed away when we tried to cross the Murray River. Poor bugger.
Evie, I know we will have to take our justice when it comes, but you understand that it will not come about at the hands of the Victoria Police. I haven’t got a stick anymore, lass, but one of their Spencer rifles. They mean to kill us, and if I have to go, I am taking as many of them bastards as I can with me.
He writes how they have been moving around the colony, sometimes so close to the coppers that it is a wonder they didn’t ask for a match, how angry they were about the mass arrests and then, well there is this section here that I can’t count how many times I have read.
My heart, my skin, my thoughts—they are all red raw, bruised, and in need of soothing. I can’t drink or smoke enough, and Christ, I have tried my best. All I can do while I sit here by this godforsaken dry creek listening for sound of hooves or guns is tell you what is in my head. I need to kiss you again, Evie, feel your skin under my fingers, and breathe that warm scent you have. I’ll not lie, I have found comforts where I could, and I am thankful for that, some helped me more than others but I always wake up feeling the same.
You have lit fires in cold bush nights that have kept the damp from my bones, and whether you know it or not, calmed my sleep when I was raging. I can see you blushing now, you always look even prettier when you do that. Forgive my frankness, and I hope you believe me when I say it is not all about relations of that sort, but you gave me something else and I want to return it.
I will look for you and trust that you still feel the same as you once did.
Well I don’t need to tell you a single thing about how I felt right then except that I was aching to find him, make him smile at me, and feel him against me body. The time that followed was almost painful with want, in truth I can’t quite remember the passing of it.
That letter was the first and last I heard from Joe Byrne until a day in February when I felt me mouth drop and me feet root into the ground. As I went about me business one morning, I looked up and there in broad daylight on the main street of Jerilderie, I saw Constable Richardson with something less than a happy face, and on either side of him was Joe Byrne and Ned Kelly dressed in blue with silver buttons. And Christ... oh I can’t stop meself smiling now… I think he was as shocked as I was! But Joe being Joe, he recovered first.
“What’s the matter, Evie, you never fancy a copper before?”
wall by Mirkwoodelfchick