The autumn wind tugs at Joe’s tweed jacket as he stands on the ledge of rock, gazing down over the sprawling plain below, his fingers furling and unfurling around the Tranter revolver clasped in his hand.
Joe paces along the rocky expanse, his eyes scanning across the yellow paddocks and distant homesteads. The unfinished letter to Aaron rustles, noisily, in his breast pocket, a weighty reminder of what he cannot ignore.
Removing the paper, Joe unfolds it, his eyes drifting over the red inked copperplate, ‘Moses the game is surely up. You think yourself very brave for all your blowing about what you will do to me. This is only foolishness on your part. For you, Ward, and Mullane are now wanted men…’
Joe’s knuckles whiten as he holds the letter in his hands, which quiver with the anger of a friendship long since betrayed…
Resting his back against the breadth of rock, Joe listens as the voices of Dan and Steve carry through the scattering limbs of ironbark, as they play a game of cribbage. Joe watches as Dan leans lazily against the gullet of his saddle, brandy stained playing cards fan from his long fingers.
Joe’s eyes fall on the warmth of the fire, as a gust of wind whistles through the ranges, snatching at the lapels of his jacket. Sliding the revolver back into its holster, he jumps down from the granite ledge and moves through the trees toward them.
As he approaches, Steve turns against the panels of his saddle, his brunette hair ruffling in the breeze. “Does Ned know you’re back here?” He begins, taking the cards from Dan; Steve cuts the deck, his voice dropping to a whisper. “He was in an awful state last night.”
Joe leans his back against a trunk of wattle and stares into the flickering shards of the fire.
Dan sweeps strands of dark hair from his eyes, and pushes them under his porkpie hat. “You still sulky about earlier?” he asks.
“Keep your mind on those damn cards Danny.” Joe mutters, breaking a twig of wattle.
“You can’t blame Ned for getting tetchy about spending so long at the Vine.” Dan shrugs, “Not with what’s coming anyhow…” He breaks off abruptly, glancing worryingly towards Joe.
Averting from Dan’s gaze, Joe tosses the snapped twig into the fire, the leaves crackling in the hungry flame.
Steve clears his throat and twists against the gullet of his saddle, his spurs scrapping through the dirt.
“You alright Whippet?” Joe asks.
Steve sighs and slaps the cards against his thigh, “I’m bleeding sick of this life.”
Joe touches his shoulder briefly and looks toward Ned, who stands at the mouth of the cave, his arms gesturing irritably at Wild Wright as the two are locked in hushed conversation.
“I’m planning on going home to the Woolshed tonight.” Joe begins. His eyes firmly locked on Ned.
“You sure that’s wise?” Dan asks, concern lacing his voice.
Joe looks back towards him, “I haven’t seen me family in a few weeks. Kate will be getting worried.”
Dan shakes his head, “He won’t be happy Joe.”
Two wedge-tailed eagles circle above him, as Joe climbs the granite ledge to where Ned sits, reading a tattered copy of Lorna Doone.
“Wild left for home?” Joe asks.
“Aye.” Ned responds, his eyes barely lifting from the dog eared pages.
Joe takes a step closer, “I was thinking of riding down to the Woolshed. Paddy might have news on Aaron.”
Ned slips an old strip of cloth against the page he is reading and shuts the book. His tired eyes flick up to Joe. “Alright, but mind you take Dan’s bay mare. Music’s too recognisable around Beechworth. ”
Joe picks up Dan’s saddle, and nudges him in the shoulder as he sleeps against the trunk of ironbark, his hat angled over one eye.
“I’m taking Geraldine down to the Woolshed.” Joe begins.
“Hmm?” Dan murmurs, sleepily rubbing at his eyes.
Joe pushes Dan’s hat back against his head, leaving his dark hair to flop over his eyes. “Just get yourself up, old man.”
As Joe and Dan near the gang’s tethered horses, Music raises her head and nickers.
“You’ve got the night off, old girl.” Joe whispers, rubbing a hand along her dappled neck.
“You going to help me saddle her?” Dan calls, gesturing towards Geraldine.
Joe brushes a hand across her back and places the lightweight saddle on Geraldine’s back.
“I’ll need the stirrups taken up a hole.” Joe asserts, “You always ride with them too bloody long.”
Dan winks cheekily over the cantle of the saddle, “That wouldn’t be because my legs are longer than yours, would it?”
Joe rolls his eyes and tugs down on the stirrup leather until the silver buckle is within reach. Unclasping the metal, he shortens the stirrups up a notch, and pulls the leather back down until the buckle is concealed under the skirt of the saddle. The snap of leather resounding as Dan shortens the other side.
Geraldine tosses her head, her front hoof pawing at the dry earth as Joe tightens the girth. Dan takes the bridle and edges the Tom Thumb bit into his mare’s mouth. Fastening the throat latch, he loops the reins over Geraldine’s bay neck and rests them on the pommel of the saddle.
Clasping the reins in one hand, Joe vaults into the saddle. Cursing as his right foot fumbles to find the stirrup, which has been taken up higher than the left.
“One hole I said, you bugger.” Joe mutters, swinging his right leg over the pommel, his fingers pulling on the leather to loosen it a notch.
Hobbling Geraldine in the scrub, Joe begins his silent decent down through Byrnes Gully.
Yellow flickers of light spill from the hut’s two front windows, as Joe approaches the front door. He knocks a fist against the timbered slab, Scanlon’s blue topaz ring illuminating in the moonlight.
“Who is it?” Kate’s soft voice resounds from within.
“It’s me, it’s Joe.” He whispers sharply.
Joe takes a step back as the door step is doused in a stream of light as Kate reefs open the front door.
“Joe!” She beams widely.
“Ah Kate, me darlin sister.” Joe smiles, his arms outstretched.
Joe pulls out a chair and takes a seat at the dining table. “Where are Ma and Paddy?”
Kate hangs the cast iron stew pot back over the coals and nods toward the darkened hall. “Mary’s taken ill, so Ma went to bed early to keep the young dear company.”
Joe’s brow furrows in concern. “It’s not grave I hope?”
Kate takes a seat next to Joe, her hand resting on his. “No, no. Just a small fever, Dr Ryan said she’ll be right in a few days.”
“And Paddy?” Joe asks.
“He’s out drinking with Jack.” Kate replies, her blue eyes tracing along the wooden planks of the table.
Joe straightens in his chair. “Sherritt?”
Kate nods, “Said he’d be back in a few hours.”
“Lucky I’ll be here for a while then.” Joe winks.
Taking her needle work from the centre of the table, Kate begins threading the slate coloured wool through the needle, but stops abruptly.
Joe pats her sleeve, “Kate what’s the matter?”
Kate clears her throat and turns to face him, her cheeks reddening in the candle light. “Did you happen to visit Maggie recently?”
Joe’s eyes narrow, “I was at the Vine just last night. Why do you ask?”
“Well, this morning I was at Paddy Allen’s store in town and he was talking with Detective Ward…” Kate breaks off nervously and shakes her head.
Joe leans closer to Kate, his fingers digging into her shoulders. “You must tell me what they were saying Catherine.”
Kate closes her eyes, “Apparently the conversation you and Maggie were having was overheard by the son of the mistress of the house…”
Joe’s hunches over the table and holds his head in his hands. “Oh Christ…” He groans.
He looks up at Kate, his eyes bloodshot. “What more were they saying?”
“As your sister I do not wish to repeat what Maggie supposedly said to you…” Kate pauses and looks toward the hallway, “but they know her lover is called Joe.” She whispers.
Joe goes to turn away but Kate tugs on his sleeve, “I pretended to busy myself in his store so I could listen. Detective Ward didn’t believe it was you, he said you wouldn’t have the nerve for that.”
Joe spits his anger into the fire and rakes a hand through his hair. “Me poor darlin Maggie, how embarrassed must she be?” He takes the whiskey flask from his breast pocket and swigs the liquor. “If old Paddy is already repeating it, how many others around Beechworth know?”
Kate shakes her head solemnly, “I don’t know Joe.”
“If Ned finds out…Ah Jesus…” Joe slides deeper into the chair, his hand rubbing over the furrows in his forehead. “I’ll have to write to Maggie…Let her know I’ll be away for a while, and when I’ll be seeing her again…”
Kate stands and moves toward the cedar cabinet. She takes the nib pen and inkwell from where they rest, and passes them to Joe, along with a sheet of blue lined note paper.
Joe stares blankly at the paper in front of him, the whispers of Beechworth ringing in his ears…