An Outlawed Life

The chill of night bites against Joe’s limbs as he lies on the rough bunk, yearning for sleep that does not come. The wood creaks nosily beneath his restless frame as he tries to find warmth under the green woollen blanket that covers him.
On the makeshift bed next to him, Dan curses and sits up. Milky streaks of moonlight seep through the chinks of the hut’s timbered walls, illuminating his weary countenance. “You’ll wake Hare with all your bloody noise”, Dan whispers sharply.
“I can’t sleep.” Joe sighs, “I’m near freezing.”
Dan reaches for his overcoat and tosses it toward Joe, where it lands with a weighty thud at his feet. Joe rises and extends an arm toward the end of the bunk, his fingers catching on an icy covering of snow.
“Ah Christ, the bloody roof is coming apart!” Joe curses, “my blanket’s covered in a layer of snow.”
“Stop your goddam complaining.” Dan retorts, “I’m sure it’s only the breeze on your fingers.”
Joe grasps a handful of the icy shards and throws them at Dan’s bedraggled hair, “does that feel like a bloody breeze to you?”
Dan curses sharply against the shock of cold and brushes the icy particles from his hair, before flicking them toward Steve’s snoring face.
Dan nods toward Ned’s bunk, “We’ll have to wake Ned.”
Suddenly the walls of the hut begin to shake, as Ned’s fist blows against the timbered walls. His excited shouts pierce Joe’s ears, “Get up lads! Come out you buggers, this damn roof’s near bowed!”
Joe sighs and reaches a chilblained hand amongst the strewn whiskey bottles which lay on the earthen floor beside him. Pulling the cork free with his teeth he takes a deep swig, closing his eyes as the spirit burns down his throat, filling the cold emptiness that resides.
From the corner of his eye, Joe catches Dan eyeing the brown bottle in his hand. Joe nods toward the whiskey bottle, “care for an eye opener, old man?”
Dan smiles wryly, “I reckon we’ll be needing it.”
Joe twists on the bunk and pulls his larrikin heeled boots over his socked feet. Standing, he passes Dan the bottle and watches as Dan’s murky outline gulps the liquor. Joe takes a match box from his tweed pocket and strikes it, for a moment his eyes are locked on the yellow flame which dances on its tip, the burden of his outlawry flickering to the surface of his tired mind. Joe takes the candle from the rough wooden table which is lined with playing cards and tea stained pannikins, and lights the wick, dousing the hut in shadowed light.
Joe nudges Steve’s snoring frame with his larrikin heeled foot, “you best be getting yourself up Hart.”
Steve rises, sleepily, and rubs at his cheeks, “why’s my face so bloody cold?”
Joe winks at Dan, and turns to Steve, “the roof’s leaking snow; Ned wants us out to clear it.”
Joe tightens his scarf around his neck and sweeps up his hat, pushing open the heavy bark door, he sways out into the blustery cold darkness.
The covering of snow crunches beneath Joe’s boots as he moves along the side of the hut to where Ned stands, his overcoat hooks on the bitter breeze, Joe’s eyes catch on Ned’s brace of revolvers which glint in the moonlight.
Ned’s beard tangles in the wind, “where are the boys?” he quizzes, passing Joe a shovel.
Joe flicks his hand toward the hut; his oilskin coat rumpling with the movement of his arm, “getting themselves dressed.”
Ned curses and thumps a calloused hand against the splintered timber, “come on you lazy buggers!”
Joe’s eyes flick up to the bark clad roof which is covered in an icy blanket of white. He sighs and takes out his pipe, packing it with tobacco. “There must be several feet of snow up there, at least.”
“Aye”, Ned mutters, pulling his coat tighter around his shoulders, “I’ve already cleared a little of it, you and the boys…” Ned brakes off and takes out his brandy flask, “when they bloody surface, can clear the rest, while I get the fire lit.”
Joe’s nods in agreement, his ears catching on the sharp crunch of snow, as Dan and Steve edge toward them. Steve kicks at the slush with each swaggered step, muttering against the cold breeze that whips against his countenance.
Ned takes a second shovel and thrusts it toward Dan, “Danny, you and Joe can start clearing some of this bloody snow off.”
“Ain’t I got a job?” Quips Steve.
“We only have two shovels Hart.” Ned asserts, “so unless you’d rather be up there shovelling with your hands, you can oversee Joe and Dan.”
Steve crosses his arms and kicks at the snow beneath his boots, dampening Dan’s grey riding breeches.
Dan jabs at Steve with the shovel handle, “What are you sulking for? You got a better deal than me.” Dan mutters, his dark blue eyes glare at Ned, who takes a swig from his brandy flask.
Joe watches as Ned slips the flask into his breast pocket and grabs, roughly, at Dan’s tweed jacket.
“Just do what you’re damn well told Danny.” Ned glowers, his grip tight around his younger brother’s arm.
Dan curses and snatches his arm free, pushing Ned away from him. Joe eye’s fix on Ned as his moonlit frame disappears around the corner of the hut, the door echoing as it’s closed. Joe turns his back and shudders as a gust of air pulls at his oilskin coat with icy fingers. He draws deeply on his pipe, filling his lungs with sweet tobacco.
Curls of smoke drift from Joe’s chapped lips as he gestures towards Dan, “you start clearing this side, and I’ll start the other.”
Dan nods, his blue eyes flash in the moonlight like sapphires.
Using a discarded crate as a step, Joe grasps one of the jockey poles and heaves himself up onto the snow lined roof.
Joe hunches his frame against the bitter wind of the ranges and begins digging beneath the snowy sludge, throwing each shovelful over his shoulder. From the other side of the hut, Steve’s voice echoes as he begins calling orders at Dan.

When the last bit of snow is cleared, Joe throws the shovel to the ground and thrusts his numbed hands deep into his pockets, closing his eyes against the burning pain that lashes against his exhausted limbs.
Once inside the warm shelter of the hut, Joe takes a bottle of whiskey and pulls a chair close to the hearth. He takes a deep swig, the rings of Lonigan and Scanlon catch upon the flickers of amber as Joe tries to warm the chill of an outlawed life

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