The full moon shines, luminously, through the drifting veil of cloud, as Joe and Ned ride along the sandy bank of Billabong Creek, the soft plod of hooves resounding from the summer cracked earth.
Joe clasps his fingers around the buttons of his tweed jacket, the February heat pressing, mercilessly, against him.
“Eff this heat!” Joe hisses, tearing the buttons open. “It’s been dark for the last hour and it’s still bloody stifling.”
“Aye, it’s not pleasant weather for riding in.” Ned sighs, taking a swig from his flask before nodding to Joe. “Care for a drop?”
Joe eyes the flask in Ned’s hand, moonlight glinting from its pewter cap. “What’s in it?”
“Some of Steve’s brandy.” Ned replies, passing the leather bound flask to Joe.
Unscrewing the cap, Joe lifts it to his lips and takes a mouthful of the liquor, scrunching his face at its sourness.
“Liquid mullock is all that is.” Joe spits, wiping his sleeve across the brandy resin that clings to his strawberry blonde moustache.
“You been smoking too much of that brown stuff?” Ned laughs, edging his black mare into a trot. “The taste ain’t that bad.”
Joe glowers at his mate and clicks his tongue, rising out of the saddle as Music springs into a trot.
The draft of the letter to Donald Cameron rustles in Joe’s breast pocket, as he leans back in the saddle, easing Music into a walk. Taking out the wad of paper, he smooths the crumpled pages against his chest.
“Trust young Danny to be so bloody careless.” Joe grumbles, sliding the paper neatly back into his pocket.
“Hmm?” Ned sounds.
Joe twists in the saddle, “Just cursing at how Dan had scrunched the letter back into me pocket, him and Steve were reading it before we left the pines.”
“This could be the only opportunity we are granted to have it printed.” Ned sighs, tightening the reins, as Clodagh, attempts to pluck her lips around a thicket of reeds.
“Aye, I know Ned.” Joe shakes his head sorrowfully, looking down toward the moonlit water of the creek. “It was a god awful shame.”
“You can be sure they’ll listen this time though.” Ned mutters, his fingers lifting the edges of his tweed jacket to display a revolver, nestled in its holster.
“We picked the correct night to ride, anyhow.” Joe asserts, his eyes gazing up at the patchwork of twinkling stars.
“Pity you didn’t bring one of those books of yours, Joe.” Ned replies, “Could read the words plainly under this moon.”
“No Neddie.” Joe begins, “this is the time for your words to be read and heard.”
The stale scent of the creek rises upwards to Joe’s nose, as he allows Music to drop her head down toward the water. Skimming her lips over it, Music snorts and shakes her head, her top lip curling at the tepid water.
“Aye, I know old girl.” Joe chuckles, crinkling his nose at the foul smell, “They could do with some damn rain up this way.”
Looking through the tangled branches of box gum, his gaze falls on the yellow light that shines from the distant windows of a pub.
“I assume that’s where we are headed?” Joe asks, gesturing toward the building.
Ned removes his hat and brushes out the tangles in his dark hair. “That’s the Woolpack Inn, aye.” He lifts his mares head from the murky water and clicks his tongue. “We will head back up onto the main road now.” Ned asserts, guiding Clodagh over the snaking roots of Myall.
Joe presses his spurs lightly on Music’s sides and tugs on the left rein, the Tomb Thumb bit glinting in the moonlight, as she turns her head and follows Ned’s mare up the bank to the gravel track above.
The sound of horse shoes resonate along the road as they edge their horses into a trot.
Joe curses, his fingers tightening around the reins as Music tosses her head against the firm contact.
“It ain’t a race, you idjit.” Joe laughs, as his mare lengthens her stride, breaking in and out of canter, her shoes clattering, noisily, over the loose gravel.
“It’s always a bloody race with that mare of yours.” Ned grumbles beside him, spurring his mare on.
The pepper trees that flank the inn whisper against the warm breeze, as it threads through the webbing of leaves. Dismounting in front of the pubs shadowed veranda, Joe and Ned lead their horses around to the stables.
Tethering Music to the hitching rail, Joe unbuckles the girth and loosens it a couple of notches.
“I wonder if she’s still here.” Ned murmurs, taking up his stirrups.
“Who?” Joe asks, looking over the pommel of his saddle.
“Mary the Larrikin.” Ned replies, ducking under Clodagh’s neck to take up the right stirrup. “She makes that barmaid of yours look right timid.”
Joe laughs and watches as Ned flicks a couple of coins to the stable boy, who sits on a bale of Lucerne hay, his young face beaming as he pockets the change.
Following Ned along the side of the Woolpack Inn, Joe sweeps a hand across the grey horse hair that sticks to his tweed trousers, his larrikin heels echoing off the slate path.
Joe looks warily behind him, as Ned’s hand closes around the brass door handle and turns it. Stepping into the kerosene lit parlour, Joe’s eyes fall on a buxom barmaid, who stands behind the bar, untamed curls of red hair masking her forehead.
Hanging their hats from the hooks placed under the framed portrait of Queen Victoria, Joe and Ned move toward the bar.
“I was wondering if Mary the Larrikin was still employed here?” Ned asks, leaning against the wooden slab.
“Who do you call Mary the Larrikin?” The barmaid replies, her green eyes flicking across to Joe. “I’ve never heard of such a person.”
Mary flicks a milky coloured hand toward Joe and Ned, as a dark haired girl enters the bar from the storeroom. “These two gentlemen are asking for ‘Mary the Larrikin’, but I’ve never heard of such a person.”
“And are you not Mary?” The girl asks, her hands planted firmly on her narrow hips.
Mary’s laughs, a snort escaping her lips. “Oh golly, is that what they call me?”
Joe winks at Mary as her cheeks begin to turn a rosy hue. He looks across to Ned, whose hazel eyes are transfixed on the woman before him.
“I’ve never seen you fellows here before; I assume you’re not locals of Jerilderie?” The girl asks, tucking a lose strand of dark hair behind her ear.
“I’m John Thompson and this is my mate, Billy King.” Ned gestures toward Joe. “We’re squatters from the Lachlan on our way down to Melbourne.”
“Well, John, Billy, it’s nice to have you here at the Woolpack Inn.” The young woman smiles, “I’m Sarah Davidson, my father is the publican. I have to head back into the storeroom now, but Mary here will fix you up whatever you’d like.”
“We appreciate your kindness, Sarah.” Joe acknowledges with a tip of his head, watching as she retreats back through the shadowed doorway.
“We’ve been hearing an awful lot about these Kelly’s.” Ned begins, “I was wondering what the local people thought of them?”
Mary leans her elbows on the bar, her fingers interlocking under her freckled chin, “The Jerilderie people think they are very brave, but we are all sad that they shot those three police down at Mansfield.”
“Aye…” Joe sighs, his blue eyes flicking down to the rings of Lonigan and Scanlon.
“I take it there’s not a great many here who oppose them, if that is the case?” Ned quizzes.
Joe’s eyes fall to Mary’s fingers, as they trail across the buttons on her chest. “Against the Kelly’s? Good heavens, no! Well, apart from Senior Constable Devine and Constable Richards.” The barmaid jests, cheekily.
“Are they the only troopers in town?” Joe asks, his brow furrowing.
Mary meets Joe’s gaze, her jade coloured eyes sparking in the kerosene light. “For the moment they are, yes. But it has been reported in the Jerilderie Gazette that our town doesn’t have the sufficient number of police to protect it. So one can never be sure when more will be stationed here.”
Ned looks toward Joe and winks, his thin lips curving into a smile.
“Anyhow,” Mary begins, “I’m sure you two fine men are not only here to talk about the police. What can I get you both in way of refreshment?”
Joe slides the appropriate coin across the counter, “I’ll have a nobbler of gin, lass.”
Counting the amount, Mary deposits the coin into the cash box and turns to Ned, “And for you, Mr Thompson?”
“Oh, I’ll just have a brandy ma’am.” Ned replies, the clatter of coins sounding as he reaches a hand into his pocket.
While Mary pours the liquor, Joe turns against the bar, and scans the collection of men around him, his eyes locking on an older man with a mess of greying whiskers.
Joe tips his head politely and goes to turn back, but the man grabs at his sleeve.
“Squatters from the Lachlan, eh?” He slurs, his eyes flicking, scornfully, up and down Joe’s tweed frame.
Joe tugs free from his grasp, “Yes, that’s right.” He asserts, averting from the man’s drunken stare.
The old man sneers, the sour smell of whiskey radiating from his breath. “For a young squatter, you seem to be very interested in our troopers.”
Joe curls his lip, his expression hardening. “What’s it all to you?”
The drunk leans closer to Joe, his brown eyes bloodshot. “Can’t a man ask a friendly question?”
Joe clenches his jaw tightly, anger simmering inside him. “What’s it all to you, I asked?”
The old man shrugs his drooping shoulders, a dirty smile cutting across his mouth.
“Trouble, Billy?” Ned asks from behind him, placing his hand firmly on Joe’s shoulder.
“No trouble here, mate.” Joe replies, his eyes firmly narrowed on the man in front of him. “I believe the old fella was just leaving.”
Joe watches as the old man swigs the remnants of brandy and lemonade from his glass, and turns from the bar.
“Don’t pay old Ernst any notice.” Mary tips her head toward the whiskered man, as she pushes the glasses toward Joe and Ned. “He’s just the local busybody; he’s a retired constable himself, so any talk of the police will get his ears burning.”
Exchanging a humoured glance towards Ned, Joe raises the nobbler of gin to his lips and swigs the clear liquid.
“Ah, nothing like the burn of gin on your gums.” He sighs, winking cheekily at Mary.
Gin and brandy flows heavily as Joe and Ned sit at the bar, there attention locked on the fiery woman before them.
Joe tugs on a red curl that frames Mary’s face. “I don’t suppose you happen to know any Kelly songs then lass?” He murmurs, his eyes glazed.
“Oh, I know a few.” Mary replies, drawing a finger playfully across the back of Joe’s hand.
“We’d be most interested to hear one, Mary.” Ned says softly, leaning closer towards her.
Mary tangles a finger in Ned’s dark hair, “What about, ‘the Kelly’s have made another escape’?
Joe looks across at Ned and winks, a smile playing on his lips, “That’ll be grand lass.”
Knotting his fingers around the nobbler of gin, Joe listens, relaxed, as Mary’s Irish voice heartily sings the words he had penned…
Fumbling for the chain hooked at his waistcoat, Joe takes out his fob watch and flicks open the silver clasp. He focuses his eyes on the small hands, surprised at the time that has passed since their arrival, two hours earlier.
He slides the timepiece back into his pocket and turns to Ned. “We best get planning some of this letter, before we have to ride back to the boys.”
Ned swigs the remaining drops of his brandy, and slides the glass across to Mary. “We have some writing to be getting on with, so we’ll have to move to a table.”
“Surely you can do that here.” Mary frowns, “I’ve loved your company.”
Ned brushes his thumb over the dimple on her chin. “We’ll be back to say our goodbyes before we depart.”
Purchasing a bottle of whiskey, Joe and Ned move toward a table at the far end of the parlour and take a seat, Joe’s eyes resting on the Murray Grey cowhide that is pinned on the wall. Looking over the stretched hide, Joe’s mind drifts back to the Eldorado School cow, and the trouble it had brought him.
“Aaron the butcher, eh?” he mutters, shaking his head.
Turning back to Ned, Joe takes out his pipe and packs it with tobacco. Lighting a match, he circles the flame over the black splinters of tobacco until they begin to glow. Joe rests the pipe between the grove in his front teeth and sucks on it, allowing the sweet smoke to curl around in his mouth before exhaling.
He removes the draft from his pocket and scans his eyes over the pencilled words. ‘Dear Sir, Take no offence if I take the opportunity of writing a few lines to you, wherein I wish to state a few remarks concerning the case of Trooper Fitzpatrick against Mrs Kelly, W. Skillion and W. Williamson, and to state the facts of the case to you.’
Beside him, Ned tugs the cork free from the emerald bottle and pours the glasses full with the liquor. He slides one across the table to Joe and looks over the pages of the draft, his lips silently mouthing the words.
Leaning back in his chair, Joe takes a sip of whiskey and looks across to Mary as she wipes down the bar.
“You ready with that pencil?” Ned asks beside him.
“Aye.” Joe replies, sliding his hand into the pocket of his trousers to retrieve the sheets of notepaper and pencil.
Straightening himself in the chair, Joe presses the lead tip of the pencil firmly against the notepaper and glances up to Ned, waiting for the direction of his voice.
“Dear Sir,” Ned begins, his dark eyes trailing over the shadows that are spread across the ceiling. “I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present, past and future…”
Specks of lead stain across Joe’s calloused fingers, as he hurriedly scrawls the words that fall from Ned’s lips…
“What would people say if they saw a strapping big lump of an Irishman shepherding sheep for fifteen bob a week or tailing turkeys in Tallarook Ranges for a smile, or even begging his tucker? They would say he ought to be ashamed of himself and tar and feather him…”
Ned breaks off and leans back in his chair, taking a deep swig of whiskey, as Joe reads over the hastily written words.
“Who’s the smile from?” Joe asks, picking up his glass.
Ned flicks his hand towards Joe. “It is of no great importance, any name will suffice.”
Maggie rises to the forefront of Joe’s thoughts, “Julia”, he whispers, making a note of her name in the margin of the notepaper.
“That barmaid of yours, from the Vine?” Ned quizzes over Joe’s shoulder.
“Aye, who else?” Joe winks.
From the corner of his eye, Joe watches as Mary moves toward them. He prods the pencil into Ned’s arm, stopping the flow of words that fall from his mouth.
“She’s coming over for a gander.” Joe whispers.
Ned looks across at him, his brow furrowing. “Who is?”
Keeping his eyes locked on the table, Joe cocks his head toward the full figured barmaid. “Mary the Larrikin.”
Mary leans against the corner of the table, and tightens the pins that are strewn throughout her fire coloured hair. Joe’s eyes lock on the straining buttons that trail down the centre of her chest, allowing himself to linger on the rise and fall of fabric that is bound around her breasts.
Her hair sorted, Mary motions toward the muddle of notepaper, “Well, aren’t you two gentleman secretive.” She jests.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Ned murmurs, mellowed by the whiskey he has consumed.
Mary laughs and shakes her head, “I’m not being intrusive. Was more interested in whether you’d like any more to drink?”
Joe’s eyes flick to the empty bottle in front of him, and back up to Mary. “Two glasses of whiskey should just about do us lass.”
“No trouble at all.” Mary grins, wrapping her fingers around the neck of the bottle, “I’ll have those brought to you in a minute.”
“She’s not a bad sort.” Joe asserts, repacking his pipe bowl with tobacco. “Danny and whippet will be sorry they missed her.”
“You know what Danny’s like.” Ned mumbles, “He’s even harder to rein in than you are.”
Joe leans back in his chair and laughs, “Don’t be such a stodgy bugger, we ain’t that bad.”
The sound of footsteps resonates across the floorboards as Mary moves toward their table.
“These two are on the house.” She smiles, sliding the nobbler’s of whiskey across the table.
Raking a hand through his hair, Joe turns the scribbled page of notepaper over and glides the tip of lead across the crinkled page, as the words fall from Ned’s lips.
Ned hunches over the table, his voice lowering to a hushed whisper. “Neglect this, and abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust wheat in Victoria, or the druth of a dry season in New South Wales. I do not wish to give this order full force without giving timely warning, but I am widow’s son, outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed.”
Joe drops the pencil and opens his hand, the painful cramp bitting up his fingers. Stretching his arm over his head, Joe leans back against the chair, and runs his eyes over the scrawled writing.
“We can work on the rest in Jerilderie.” Ned sighs, rubbing a hand across his forehead. “You’ll have time to work on the good copy during the nights.”
Joe draws deeply on his pipe. “Have to rob for some paper and ink.”
“The troopers should be willing to donate some to a widow’s son.” Ned replies wryly, his gaze fixed on Mary…