The November rain falls about Joe in heavy sheets as he leans his frame against the wooden door of home. Overhead, streaks of lightning illuminate the dark Woolshed sky, followed by sharp cracks of thunder which resound through the gully. Joe shudders at its severity, which rings in his ears like the cat o’ nine tails, as visions of Beechworth gaol flash, uneasily, in his mind. Joe shakes from the brutality that grips him, and knocks a fist, which is cut and calloused from the prison sentence he had just served, against the breadth of door.
“Ma?” Joe calls, in between raps, “It’s me, it’s Joe.”
Muffled voices echo from under the door, but no one replies. Joe presses an ear against the wood, catching his mother’s sharp whispers that resound through the hut.
Exhausted anger flashes through him; he kicks harshly at the timber, “for god sake Ma, let me in!” Joe’s voice shakes under the emotion which stabs at his throat, “I’ve spent six months of my life starving in gaol…I only want something warm to eat.”
Joe slides down the door, tears stinging at the corners of his eyes. He removes his hat and locks numb fingers in the damp waves of his hair. Joe curses loudly, and shoves a hand deep into his pockets, his fingers disturbing the collection of coins that rest in the fold of fabric.
Joe stands and pulls his overcoat tighter around him. He sways from beneath the shelter of veranda, and into the night, reefing his hat low over his eyes as the rain lashes against his countenance. A flock of black cockatoo’s screech loudly above him, as Joe makes his way along the rain drenched stretch of Byrne Gully. The towering macrocarpa trees that flank the muddy track sway and groan against the wind, as it twists through their limbs.
Finally, Joe pushes his shivering frame through the last tangle of scrub, his eyes falling upon the main road in front of him. The layer of crushed granite echoes beneath Joe’s larrikin heels as he moves down past the stone expanse of the Oven’s Hospital. Memories of Paddy’s death flicker, painfully, in Joes mind. His hand clutches at the damp scarf knotted around his neck, the only item he has left to remind him of his father, and closes his eyes… Joe stands, his blue eyes blurred by tears, as he looks upon the pale and twisted figure of his father, as Paddy lies on a small iron bed, smothered in grey woollen blankets. A warm beam of sunlight streams into the little room from the skylight above Paddy’s bed, but still he shivers. As Joe begins to read his father a poem he had written, Paddy’s hand suddenly clutches at Joe’s arm, shaking the tawny coloured paper from his hand. Joe looks down in horror, as Paddy’s chest begins to rattle with the release of death…
Joe shakes the memory from his mind, and brushes a hand over the tears that run down his cheeks, nestling in the short auburn whiskers of his sideburns. He looks up toward the darkened sky, as the heavy rainclouds begin to move over Beechworth, exposing the milky sphere of moon. Joe shakes the droplets of water that cling to the brim of his hat and makes his way further down the stretch of road.
Henry Vandenberg’s orchard shines under the moonlight as Joe’s eyes catch on the flickering yellow light of the Vine Hotel. Several of the horses snort spookily as he moves behind the stables, and climbs the collection of whitewashed stairs, his larrikin heels echoing loudly off the timber.
As Joe stands beneath the hotel’s wide veranda, he looks through the pane of glass of the window to the flickering fire inside, a warm press of heat escapes from under the door, warming the cold dampness of his trouser hems.
Suddenly the door is pulled ajar, a young woman with mousey blonde hair looks toward Joe’s shadowed frame, “what are you doing out here on a night like this?” Her blue eyes full of concern, “come in and sit next to the fire.”
Joe’s eyes flick down to his normally polished larrikin heels, now covered in a layer of mud and shakes his head sorrowfully. “I don’t normally look so rough, it’s just that I’ve…”
The soft warmth of her hand causes him to shiver slightly as she touches his cheek, her voice soft, “you don’t have to explain yourself, just come in and get yourself dry.”
Joe follows her into the kerosene lit parlour, the warmth of the fire calming the chill that bites, achingly, at his bones. She beckons him towards the hearth and peels off his water laced coat, and hangs it over a chair before moving back behind the wooden breadth of bar. Joe turns toward the fire and extends his arms closer to the crackling flames, rubbing his calloused hands over the soothing warmth.
Joe’s ears catch on the creaking of floorboards as two heavily bearded men move toward the door, “goodnight Maggie” they call, before disappearing out into the murky darkness. Joe looks back over to her, watching as she moves behind the bar, a stray curl falls over her face as she pours a large nobbler of whiskey.
As she moves toward him, Joe’s digs a hand into his pocket but she stops him, her lips curving into a smile as she speaks, “this one is on the house, Mr…”
“Byrne”, Joe replies, studying her gentle countenance, “Joe Byrne.”
The young woman passes Joe the glass, which glimmers in the firelight; he takes a deep swig, hungry for the amber warmth that burns down his throat.
Joe places the glass on the fireplace, “I heard those two older fella’s calling you Maggie, I presume that’s your name?”
She shakes her head, a hint of pain reflects in her dark blue eyes, “My real name is Julia…” She pauses and gathers herself, “but I prefer Maggie.”
“Maggie.” Joe repeats gently, holding her gaze, his finger catching on her hair, “a fitting name for such a beautiful woman.”
Maggie laughs and taps him, playfully, on his arm, “What’s a well-dressed fellow like yourself doing out in this weather?”
Joe swallows the pain that rises in his throat and looks down into the flickering flames of the fire, trying to hide the tears that well in his eyes. “I was released from Beechworth gaol this afternoon, but me Ma wouldn’t have me home.”
Maggie moves closer to him and lifts a finger beneath his chin, turning his face toward hers. “You don’t have to go back out into the cold Joe; Mrs Vandenberg has plenty of rooms here.”
Joe’s hands cup her face, as he looks down into Maggie’s eyes, which glimmer, warmly, in the firelight. Joe’s lips brush over hers, the pain of prison and Margret’s coldness seep from his heart, as Maggie kisses him tenderly.