Music whinnies as Joe approaches the police paddock, where she has been tethered since his arrival to the courthouse yesterday morning. A trooper sits beside the post and rail yards, his helmet low over his eyes, cutting the glare from the afternoon sun. He looks up as Joe nears, scrunching the Ovens and Murray Advertiser under his arm and rises from the wooden crate.
“It’s the big grey isn’t it?” The policeman nods towards Music, “And your flash young mate has the chestnut, if I recall?”
“Aye” Joe responds, “but just bring out the grey, my mate will be out soon to collect his mare.”
Waiting as the trooper removes the top rail, Joe’s eyes flick toward the holding cell, where he had met that young fellow with the bright smile and raggedy clothing. He turns his head back to the horse yards, as Music is led out, her shoes clipping the rail as she steps over it.
Joe tips his head and takes Music’s reins, as she shakes her bridled head from the flies that buzz around her large black eyes. Joe tightens the girth and lets his stirrups down, the leather snapping against the saddle flaps.
“What about Chloe!” Aaron’s voice loudly calls behind him.
Joe mutters under his breath and turns, as Aaron swaggers toward him. “If you’re capable of acting like a damn foolish clown in there…” Joe pauses, kicking a leg toward the sand coloured courthouse, “then you’re bloody capable of getting your own horse.”
Aaron raises his arms in mock surrender and smirks, “need a bit of soothing from Maggie, eh?”
Joe clenches his jaw, his fists curling at his sides, “if you had of got us on an attempted murder charge, I would have killed you Aaron.”
Aaron rocks back on his heels and laughs, “I wouldn’t talk so loudly Joe, don’t know who could be listening.”
Joe scowls and shortens the reins, bunching them in his right hand and vaults into the saddle. While his feet find the stirrups, he looks down towards Aaron who leans against the post rail, chewing on a strand of oaten hay.
“I’ll see you at the Vine.” Joe mutters, as he edges Music forward.
Approaching the hotel, the large sign catches Joe’s attention, as it squeaks against the breeze, Vine Hotel, Sydney Road – First Class Accommodation. He dismounts at the hitching rail, as a young boy moves out from the shadows of the stables, horse hair clinging to his patched moleskins.
Joe takes the reins over Music’s head and passes the leather into the hands of the stable boy. “See that she’s well treated.” Joe exclaims, flicking a few shillings toward the boy.
“Of course mister,” he replies, brushing away the mess of straw coloured hair that hangs over his green eyes, “I treat every horse like it’s me own.”
“That’s the way lad.” Joe winks, turning on his heel.
Climbing the stairs, the loud chatter of drink filled men and metallic melody of piano keys streams from the hotel’s open windows. Joe pulls open the wooden door and steps inside, the haze of tobacco hanging thick in the parlour.
Joe scans the room for Maggie, his eyes falling on her golden blonde hair as she serves a pint of ale to a young raggedy dressed man.
“Joe!” Maggie gasps, happily, as he nears the bar, “you got let off?”
“Aye,” Joe winks cheekily, “of course I did me darling.”
The young man turns on the bar stool, his blue eyes looking hard at Joe, through wisps of crow black hair.
“Ah, young Dan,” Joe smiles, holding out his hand, “what did I say about that receipt old man?”
Dan takes Joe’s hand and shakes it, his face softening, “me brother Ned said it was good advice you gave me yesterday.”
Joe sits beside him at the bar and gestures toward Maggie for a nobbler of gin, “happy to help a mate.”
Counting the appropriate coin, Joe slides them across the breadth of wood as Maggie places the glass in front of him.
“Thank you my love.” Joe murmurs, his finger tracing along the curve of her chin.
“Is she your donah?” Dan nods toward Maggie as she moves to the far side of the bar; wiping away the trail of whiskey that snakes around empty glasses.
“She’s my girl, aye.” He answers, lifting the nobbler of gin to his lips.
Joe takes a swig of the clear liquor, watching through his glass as Dan takes a mouthful of the foamy ale and turns his head away, hiding the sour expression that creeps across his countenance.
Joe laughs, and pats him on the back “not a great drinker of ale I see?”
Dan wipes the back of his frayed sleeve across the foam that clings to his moustache, “I’m trying to be. Me brother Jim says it’s what real men drink.”
“Nonsense, you drink what you bloody like.” Joe replies, “I’ll shout you a brandy if that’s what you’d prefer?”
“Thank you.” Dan smiles, threading his long fingers around the indented glass, “But I’ll finish this first.”
Suddenly, the door swings open behind them, Aaron’s voice resounds through the parlour, “Joe you cunning bugger, you left me to pay the effing paddock fee!”
Joe curses under his breath and turns, his gaze narrowing on Aaron as he stands in the door way. Slamming the bar door shut, Aaron’s boots shake the floor as he swaggers toward Joe, his sleeves rolled up around his freckled elbows.
Slapping Joe heavily on the shoulder, his attention falls on Dan. “Ah, the young bugger from the lockup.” Aaron jests, “Still haven’t grown into those fine clothes I see.”
Dan’s face drops; his eyes falling on the crinkled moleskins which are draped over his jutting knees.
Joe smiles sorrowfully and pats a hand on his wrist, “Never mind Aaron, he can’t seem to control what comes out of his mouth.”
Aaron leans close to him, his breath hot against Joe’s ear, “what is with you and this bloody kid?”
Glaring at Aaron, Joe punches a fist against the silk shirt that covers his chest, “get out of here you effing idjit!”
From the corner of the parlour, the tune from the piano grows heartier. Aaron removes his pork pie hat from his greasy black hair and mockingly tips it at Joe, before moving toward two brightly dressed women who sway against the wall. Joe’s eyes follow Aaron as he approaches the women, who laugh as he bows before them. Aaron winks over his shoulder at Joe, as his arm snakes around the heavily corseted waist of one of them.
Joe rolls his eyes and turns back to Dan, who knocks back his ale in a single swig. “Two brandy’s Maggie, m’love.” Joe calls, over the increasing chatter that surrounds them.
Taking his pipe and tobacco from the breast pocket of his tweed jacket, Joe nods toward Dan, “you’ll have to tell me a bit about yourself, old man.”
Dan clears his throat and straightens, “at present I live in Greta, along the Eleven Mile. I work hard to try and help me ma as best I can.” Dan’s fingers go underneath his cord waistcoat, pulling at the orange sash that is tied about his waist. “I’m also one of the leading members of the Greta Mob, along with my cousin Tom Lloyd. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of us?”
“Oh, I’ve heard plenty of stories about those Greta Mob lads.” Joe flashes, as his eyes catch on a loop of string at Dan’s waistcoat.
Dan takes a swig of brandy, “you wondering about this?” he asks, his finger tugging around the length of string, exposing a shiny chestnut.
Joe raises an eyebrow, “a conker?”
Dan draws it, tightly, into his palm, “I’ve never been able to afford a fob watch. Ned got given our da’s, so me and Jim have never owned one.”
Joe’s own fob watch hangs heavy in his waistcoat, despite the summer heat that presses against them, he tightens his dark jacket around himself.
Finishing the last drop of liquor, Joe nods toward Dan’s empty glass, “fancy another?”
Dan nods and fumbles the conker back into his waistcoat.
The glasses scrape noisily along the timbered counter, as Maggie pushes them toward Joe, his fingers caressing hers as he takes the brandy.
“Here you go old man.” Joe smiles, passing the glass to Dan.
Dan swigs the brandy thirstily, his cheeks reddened by the liquor he’d consumed. “Me ma, she’s a funny old duck…” Dan mumbles, “she never stops yelling at me and Kate.”
“Kate?” Joe repeats.
“She’s one of me sisters.” Dan stares groggily into his glass, “me favourite sister.”
Joe’s eyes flick up to Maggie’s; he takes her hand in his and kisses it tenderly, “I’ll be with you tonight.”
Rising from the wooden stool, Joe places a hand on Dan’s shoulder, “reckon it’s about time I got you home young fellow.”
Grabbing underneath Dan’s arms, Joe guides him off the stool and towards the door. Holding the door ajar, he waits while Dan negotiates the step. Before he steps out onto the veranda, Joe looks over to Aaron as he glowers at him from the bar.
“I can feel the bloody nails through the holes in me boots.” Dan remarks, scuffing his boots along the timbered decking.
Joe grasps Dan’s tattered sleeve and walks him down the array of white painted stairs to the stables.
“Which is your horse?” Joe motions to Dan, while the stable boy leads out Music.
“Geraldine. The tall bay.” Dan replies, flicking a limp wrist toward the bay mare with the white stripe down her face.
Joe opens the stable door and leads her out. Halting her in front of Dan, Joe legs him up into the saddle and tightens the girth. Moving to her bridle, he unfastens one of the reins from the bit and buckles it near the brow band.
“What are ya doing to me bridle?” Dan slurs.
“I don’t want to pull your bloody horse’s mouth off.” Joe answers, leaving the reins loose up around her neck.
Vaulting into the saddle, Joe squeezes his left calf against Music’s side, so she edges closer to Dan’s mare. Leaning forward, he takes Dan’s reins in his hands and kicks Music forward, as she attempts to swing her rump around at Geraldine.
“Get out of that!” Joe growls.
As they make their way up along Sydney Road, Joe nudges Dan, who sits, hunched, in the saddle. “Are you able to direct me to where you live?”
Dan sweeps his hair from his eyes, “you know Greta?”
Joe nods, “aye, I do. Is that where home is?”
Dan mumbles and pulls his porkpie hat lower over his eyes.
“How much further?” Joe asks wearily, as the Bald Hill comes into view.
“Just keep going further.” Dan persists.
Joe shakes his head, “are you sure old man? You’ve been saying ‘go further’ for quite a while now.”
“I know where I live, it’s the next homestead.” Grumbles Dan.
While they make their way along the fence line, several sheep who had been sheltering under a dying gum tree, nosily bound toward the middle of the paddock. Music jumps sideways, the clatter of stirrup irons resound as Joe’s legs collide with Dan’s.
“Argh, you bloody bitch!” Joe curses, as Music begins to prance and bob her head excitedly, pulling the reins through his fingers.
“Me brother Ned would fix her.” Dan mutters, his arms wrapped around Geraldine’s neck, steadying himself.
“I might have to take you up on that.” Joe answers, pushing Music on, his left hand grasping Dan’s reins as they continue their way along the dirt road.
Finally, a slab homestead comes into view. Joe halts in front of the iron gate and takes his feet out of the stirrups, preparing to dismount.
“Where are we?” Dan looks around confused.
“Your selection.” Joe replies, swatting the flies that crawl over the back of his neck.
Dan pulls at the loose thread at his sleeve. “This isn’t where I live.”
“Where do you live then?” Joe takes off his hat, running his fingers through the layer of sweat that glistens through his auburn hair.
“Me ma’s selection is the one before this place.” Dan motions over his shoulder.
“You’re lucky I’m your mate Kelly.” Joe sighs, sliding his feet back into the stirrups.
“This is it.” Dan nods toward a dilapidated bark shack.
Joe’s eyes widen at the neglected view in front of him, a world away from the Byrne farm in the Woolshed. The length of brush fencing that separates the two, grassless and rocky, paddocks is bowed toward the ground. Several Jersey Cows hang their hollow necks over it, picking at the dry clumps of grass.
Nearing the shack, three black colts catch Joe’s attention, as they trot, skittishly, around in their yard, rope halters swinging from their necks. A tan coloured kelpie who had been sleeping on an old flour sack begins to bark loudly.
Dismounting, Joe loops Music’s reins over a hitching rail and loosens the girth while Dan slides off Geraldine’s back, his worn boots landing with a dull thud on the uneven ground.
As Joe guides Dan toward the shack, the front door is pulled open, a woman with black hair sways outside, her apron and arms covered in flour.
“What time do you calls this Danny?” She calls, her voice stern.
“Ah Christ it’s me ma, Ellen.” Dan mutters against Joe’s tweed jacket.
Once inside, Joe’s eyes fall on the earthen floor at his feet. Grey sheets that hang from the wooden beams, crinkle in the breeze that whistles through the shack.
“And who is this?” Ellen asks, planting her floured hands on her narrow hips, her blue eyes staring coldly at Joe.
“It’s… It’s Jim.” Dan slurs drunkenly.
Taking the broom from where it leans, she jabs the handle into Dan’s ribs, sending him keeling over in pain. “Jim? You trying to be funny?!” She snaps.
“It’s bloody Jim, ma!” Dan retorts, as he rocks unsteadily on his feet.
Before Ellen can jab him again, Joe holds out his hand, “I’m Joseph Byrne ma’am.”
Her eyes flick to Joe, scanning over his neatly trimmed strawberry blonde sideburns, and dark tweed suit, before dropping to his shinny larrikin heels. “Are you Danny’s lawyer?”
Joe clears his throat, his cheeks reddening, “No ma’am, I live in the Woolshed. Dan and I were drinking at old Vandenberg’s Vine Hotel together; I just wanted to make sure he made it home.”
Next to Joe, Dan throws off his boots, exposing his calloused bare feet, and staggers through the curtain. The groan of a bed frame echoing through the thin partition.
“Well Mr Byrne, you’ve seen him home.” Ellen begins, “Now you may leave us.”
Joe tips his head and turns toward the door, his gaze falling on a sawn off carbine that rests on the table, the initials EK etched into its grip…