The dull rattle of chains catch on the spring breeze, as the hobbled horses pick at what grass they can find amongst the formation of rock that lines the ridge. Joe rests his back against the trunk of a gumtree, sucking on his pipe. He lets the sweet tobacco fill his mouth, before exhaling, his eyes following the curls of smoke as they drift upwards. Joe looks over to Dan and Steve, who doze next to him, their heads resting on rolled up oilskins, catching what sleep they can.
Joe takes out his fob watch from where it is tucked, neatly, in his waistcoat and checks the time. Two o’clock. He stands and brushes the layer of dirt from his dark tweed trousers, and stretches his limbs, sighing as his muscles loosen.
Picking up his saddle and bridle, Joe makes his way up the small rise to where their horses are hobbled, in amongst the scattering of gumtrees. As he approaches, Ned’s bay mare, Mirth, lifts her head, shaking a tuft of grass free of the dry earth which clings around it. Joe stops and runs a hand along her neck, thinner than usual after months of hard riding, her back glistening with a sweaty saddle mark. Joe inspects the other two bay mares, whose condition are not much better, and shakes his head. It was a poor existence for both man and horse.
Joe threads the bridle around his shoulder and heads further down the ridge to where his grey mare, Music, is hobbled. She nuzzles his hand, smelling the oats concealed within his palm. Joe unfurls his fingers and she takes the grains eagerly. He loops the reins over her neck and edges the Tom Thumb bit into her mouth, which rattles as Music grinds at the metal with her teeth. Moving to her hind legs, Joe removes the leather strapping at her pasterns, and places the saddle on her back.
As Joe begins tightening the girth, Music lays her ears back, and jerks her head round to his side, threatening to bite at his jacket.
“Enough of that!” Joe growls and prods at her flank.
Music tosses her head and snorts, driving her teeth into the thin trunk of wattle, stripping it of bark. Once he has her saddled, Joe leads Music up the small rise to where Ned is waiting.
“You riding down to Sandy Creek now mate?” Ned asks, looking down across the plain.
“Aye”, Joe nods, “I want to get to Thompson’s farm before Jack, so I can watch the bugger’s arrival. No knowing who could be with him.”
Ned runs a hand through Music’s mane, “traps, you think?”
Joe takes the reins in one hand and vaults into the saddle, “Maggie saw the cove in Beechworth, with Nicolson. She said Jack had a letter with him, no doubt the one I delivered to him.”
“Me and the boys won’t be far off Joe, we will start moving at sundown.” Ned responds, securing Joes rifle, which is wrapped in an oilskin coat, behind the saddle.
Music begins to paw at the ground as Joe levels the stirrup iron over his boots, the long spurs strapped at his larrikin heels flash in the sunlight. Joe touches his hat briefly and begins his descent through the Warby Ranges.
The sweet aroma of the creek is the only guidance needed, as Joe’s grey mare picks her way through the scrubby bush which lay before them. It has been a hard few hours riding, and both horse and rider are eager for liquid relief.
As they near the creek, Joe’s eyes move down his person and rest on the damp red stains which snake up his trouser hems. He swings his leg forward, resting it over the pommel of the saddle and looks down at her sides, cursing when he sees her bloodied and torn flank.
It had been a hard few months and nowhere had felt safe. Constant police presence, no matter how poor, had proved threatening and the gang had needed to stay on the move, seeking higher and rougher ground. Aaron had found new interests in the form of a young wife and had been less ardent on his dealings with the gang. His brother Jack, on the other hand, had seemed eager enough, but Joe knew his loyalty needed testing…
Joe stops at the water’s edge and drops the reins, allowing Music to stretch her neck and sniff at the murky water of the creek. He gazes out over the line of gumtrees to the darkening clouds above, while a flock of black cockatoos echo and screech above him. Joe dismounts; taking the whiskey flask from his tattered breast pocket and takes a swig. The amber liquid burns a track down his throat and settles with the nerves at the pit of his stomach.
Joe sighs heavily, and kicks at the dry earth beneath him, his mind heavy with the burden of an outlaw. Before long, however, his attention is brought back to the reality of the present, by his mare, as she paws at the creek, dampening the leather of the saddle flaps and the strips of raw skin at her sides.
“Get out of that!” Joe hisses, grasping a stick, sending it splashing into the water beside her.
Music shy’s and trots toward him; Joe takes the reins and runs a hand over her dappled grey neck.
“Let’s see if the bastard has obeyed us?” Joe mutters, as he places his left foot into the stirrup and lifts himself into the saddle.
Joe clicks his tongue and gently presses the spurs against Music’s sides, careful not to agitate the bloody wound at her flank. Resting his hands on the pommel, Joe allows Music to have her head as she negotiates her way up the sandy bank to the track above.
As the derelict farm buildings begin to come into view, Joe dismounts, and leads Music through the dense array of Ghost Gums and Stringybark. When he comes in sight of the creek, Joe loosens the girth and takes the hobbles out of the saddle bag, buckling the leather around Music’s pasterns.
His fingers go to the strapping behind the cantle of his saddle, tugging on the knot to free his rifle, cursing at how tightly Ned has wound it. Music swishes her tail as Joe pulls roughly at the saddle, as the strapping begins to loosen. Unfurling the oilskin, Joe removes his rifle, leaving his mare to graze by the trickling stream.
Making his way through the tangle of scrub, Joe’s ears catch on the thump of hooves, as Jack canters his chestnut gelding along the dirt track. He crouches, and peers through the scattering of black wattle, watching as Jack slows to a trot as he nears the old farm house. Joe strains his ear, waiting for another set of hooves, but there is silence. Joe watches as Jack walks, nervously, around the hut, stopping to peer through its windows.
“The bastard”, Joe mutters to himself, “thinks we don’t know about him and Aaron’s dealings with those uniformed rogues in Beechworth…”
His eyes follow Jack’s movements, as he unsaddles his chestnut and hobbles its socked hind legs.
Joe watches until darkness falls, then he makes his way deeper into the scrub where Music is tethered. He unsaddles her, and takes a handful of oats from the saddle bag and scatters them over the coarse tufts of native grass. Music lowers her head, and sifts through the grass, plucking the oats, hungrily, with her lips.
Resting the pommel of his saddle against a wide stump of Stringybark, Joe leans his back against the gullet and panels of his saddle. He pulls his oilskin over him and reaches a hand into his breast pocket, taking out his whiskey flask. Joe wraps his calloused fingers around the flask as he takes a deep swig, yearning for Maggie’s warmth, as the chill of night falls around him.
Joe tips his head back and closes his eyes, listening to the distant barking of a dog, until he finally drifts, exhaustedly, into sleep.
The morning sun is warm at his back, as Joe rides along the scrubby stretch of gully of the Warby Ranges. As Music picks her way through the tangle of ferns, Joe’s ears catch on the distant clip of hooves, as the shoes of Jack’s gelding resound over the rock. Dismounting, Joe loops the reins over the sapling and moves toward the clearing, watching as Jack rides along the track below him.
Waiting until Jack has turned past the dog leg of the track, Joe jumps down from the bank, unsettling the dirt, which kicks up his larrikin heels.
“Sherritt!” Joe calls from the middle of the track.
Joe watches as Jack swings his chestnut around, and looks, nervously, toward him. Joe signals with his outstretched hand for Jack to follow him into the scrub, and waits as he tethers his horse to the shrub which flanks the track.
Joe follows Jack’s gaze, as his eyes fall on Joe’s bloody trousers and spurs.
“How’ve you been Jack?” Joe enquires, holding out his hand.
Jack swallows and shakes his hand; Joe’s eyes narrow as he feels the warmth radiating from Jack’s palm.
“No need for nerves old man.” Joe winks, “we’re both mates.”
Jack curls his lip into a smile, “that’s right Joe, we are.”
Joe takes out his whiskey flask, and nods toward Jack, “care for an eye opener?”
Jack shakes his head, “I better not, I need a clear head for the ride home.”
“Don’t want to get yourself lost in these parts.” Joe replies, looking up through the woven branches of gum to the sapphire coloured sky above.
Joe puts the flask to his lips and throws his head back, letting the amber liquid swirl around in his mouth before he swallows.
“That bloody Hare is a smart old cove, isn’t he? “ Joe laughs, “We underestimated him….Well, Ned did anyhow. I’ll tell you now, him and his search parties were onto our tracks. Nearly caught us they did too.”
“How’s life been Joe?” Jack enquires, his hands dig deep into his tattered overcoat.
Hunger stabs at Joe’s belly as he speaks, “We’ve been bloody well starved out these past few months Jack.” Joe’s eyes fall on the covering of gum leaves, “I wish to Christ I’d never got myself in this mess.”
His eyes flick back up to Jack, “do you know Nicolson?” Joe asks, his gaze hardening.
Jack hesitates for a moment, “I, I know no-one”, he stammers.
Joe straightens, his fingers resting on the wooden grip of his Tranter revolver, which is concealed beneath his overcoat.
Joe shakes the anger that rises in him, “me and Neddie want you to scout the Yackandandah bank for us, old man.” He begins, “See how many police are there, and see if you can detect any in private clothes.”
Jack shifts, uncertainly, on his feet and nods.
Joe continues, “generally loaf around and see where the buggers go in to have tea. Reckon you could do that for us? I’m short of cash at the moment, but when I get the bank, I will give you a hundred or two.”
“Where are Ned and the younger fellows?” Jack asks, looking past Joe to the dense scrub behind him.
Joe’s fingers hook around his watch chain, he removes the fob watch from his waistcoat and checks the time. 11.30, Ned would be waiting. Joe’s light blue eyes glance back up to Jack, “they’re not very far off.”
Joe holds his hand out, “meet me at Evan’s Gap on Sunday the 23rd, and we’ll go through the particulars about the bank.”
Jack clasps Joe’s hand and limply shakes it, “the 23rd.”
Joe eyes stare coldly, as Jack turns and moves down the loose embankment to the track beneath. The whinnies of his gelding echo on the wind, as Jack mounts and canters off along the track…