The honking of geese ring in Joe’s ears as he rubs, tiredly, at his sleep crusted eyes. Turning onto his back, Joe ties his fingers behind his head and stares up at the calico above him.
From behind the partition, eight year old Mary snuffles and coughs. The rattle of the bedframe sounds as she wiggles out of bed, the patter of small footsteps edging closer to the curtain.
Mary presses her face into the fabric. “Are you still in bed Joe?”
Joe sits up and buttons his undershirt, “Just wait a minute while I get my shirt on.”
Swinging his tweed clad legs out from under the covers, Joe retrieves his shirt from the iron bedpost and hastily pulls it over his head.
“Alright Mary, you can come in now.” Joe affirms, reaching down for his bluchers.
Mary pokes her head through the join in the curtain, “Ma will be cross that you’re still in bed.” She says, dragging a hand across her runny nose.
Joe takes a blue handkerchief from the bedside drawer, “She’ll be a slight more cross at you, Mary, for using your hand to wipe your nose again.”
“All my handkerchiefs are dirty Joe.” Mary snuffles, “And Denny wouldn’t let me use one of his.”
Lacing up his boots, Joe stands and passes his younger sister the square cloth. “Well, you can have one of mine, but remember to give the dirty ones to Ma, so that she or Kate can wash them for you.”
“I will Joe.” She replies, before disappearing back through the curtain.
From the small copper basin, Joe soaks a wash cloth in the water, and looking into the small mirror, pats the damped cloth over the sleep lines that trail across his face. Picking up a small comb, he brushes it through the tangles in his hair and runs its teeth through the wisps of his sideburns.
Slipping his waistcoat over his shirt, Joe takes his jacket from the hook and makes his way down the newspaper lined hall.
Joe hangs his jacket over the back of a chair, as Margret stands in front of the hearth, stirring a wooden spoon through the bubbling porridge.
He sits down across from Elly, whose bright blue eyes flick, unknowingly, across his face.
“I am surprised to still see you here.” Margret says sharply, spooning porridge into a porcelain bowl, before placing it in front of five year old Elly, “I was sure you would have already ridden up to Sherritt’s.”
Elly stretches her arm across the table, “Spoon, spoon.” She gabbles.
Joe slides the utensil across the table towards his sister, “No Ma, I thought I’d spend the day here, and see what I can help with. I see Patsy’s been adding timber to the cow yard.”
“He has.” She replies, handing Joe a steaming bowl of porridge, “Paddy is always a great help to me.”
Joe looks up to Margret, her pale hooded eyes stare coldly down at him. “Aaron has no one else to help him fence his selection, and if he doesn’t keep up with the improvement’s he’ll lose it.”
Margret plants a spoon into the mush of oats, “What about my selection Joe?”
Joe averts from her gaze and wraps his fingers around the warm bowl in front of him.
“I suppose I shouldn’t expect any less,” Margret begins, unfeelingly, “you’ve always had a lazy streak, just like your father.”
Joe bites his lip, and stares into the porridge, holding back the words he dare not utter…
Splinters of wood fly around Joe’s boots as he slices the axe blade down through the log, splitting its length in two. His porkpie hat, cocked to one side, his pipe dangling, lazily, from his lips. Beside him, his younger brother, Denny, picks up the halved pieces of firewood and tosses them into their father’s old wheelbarrow.
“It’s nice to have you here, Joe.” Denny says, kicking away loose bits of bark. “Paddy never lets me help him with the firewood.”
Joe removes the pipe from his mouth, “Why is that?” He asks, curls of smoke drifting from his mouth.
Denny throws two more logs into the cart, “He says I’m too careless filling the wheelbarrow.”
Joe looks at the barrow filled, haphazardly, with wood. “All this lot has to be re stacked against the house anyhow, so I see no problem.”
Rolling up his sleeves, Denny smiles widely at Joe, “I’ll tell that to Paddy next time.”
Joe ruffles his younger brother’s hair, “Aye, you do that.”
While Joe works with the axe, a figure on a chestnut horse catches the corner of his eye. Joe looks up, wiping away the beads of sweat that cling to his brow, his gaze narrowing as the horseman canters closer towards him.
“Aaron?” Joe quizzes under his breath, as he eyes the red sash that is bound around the rider’s waist.
Joe takes a step back as Aaron wheels his mare around and halts in front of him, grass coloured foam drips from her mouth as she chomps at the curb bit.
“I haven’t caught you doing honest work have I Joe?” Aaron laughs, swinging his feet out of the stirrups.
Joe spears the axe blade into the top of the log and straightens. “If you’ve only come to give me cheek, you can effing leave; I’ve already had Ma at me about how I’m never here.”
Aaron loops his reins over the fencepost, “I suppose I’m a bit at fault for that?”
“Well it is your damn selection I’m helping you fence, Sherritt.” Joe replies, removing his pipe from his mouth.
Aaron pushes his hat back from his eyes and steps closer to Joe. “All that aside, remember how I was telling you of my plan to try me hand at butchering?”
“Aye, I remember.” Joe sighs, shaking his head. “I told you it was a damned fool idea then, and I still stand by it Aaron.”
“Ah, come off it Joe.” Aaron hisses, prodding him in the shoulder. “I’ve found one haven’t I?”
Joe rubs a hand across his furrowing brow, “What are you talking about Aaron? One of your father’s cows?”
Aaron bends down and grasps the lump of firewood at his boots, tossing it into the wheelbarrow. “Nah Joe,” He begins, picking a splinter from his thumb. “That white cow, up at Eldorado Common.”
“Jesus Aaron…” Joe mutters, turning away to watch Denny, as he chases Mary with a strip of bark, covered in woodlice. Her excited squeals echoing as she runs behind the stable.
Margret’s voice cuts through the valley, as she calls sharply from the clothesline, “Denny Byrne! Stop tormenting your sister!”
Aaron raises his eyebrows and stifles a laugh. “Look Joe, we can take the cow easy as we please. Put her in Kennedy’s old milking yard and butcher her no trouble.”
“And it hasn’t crossed that mind of yours that we could be seen?” Joe asks.
“Come on Joe, that cow is always breaking out of that yard.” Aaron persists, “We can bring it up through the bush, there’s already a bloody rope hanging from its neck.”
Joe grips his fingers around the axe handle, “You know we could be imprisoned for this, don’t you Aaron?”
Aaron slaps his hand on Joe’s shoulder, “Who said anything about getting caught, you bugger? We branded them fillies in that yard and we aren’t in handcuffs.”
Shaking his head, Joe splits another log.
Nearing the whitewashed building of the school, Joe and Aaron dismount, tethering their horses in the scrub and make their way down the small bank. As they approach the paddock, the young white cow lifts her head from the grass she has been grazing.
“She’s in good condition.” Joe whispers.
“Can you see now, why I chose her over one of me father’s cows?” Aaron replies, opening the gate.
Joe follows Aaron into the paddock, his eyes falling on the beast’s brand as Aaron picks up the end of rope.
“What about the brand?” Joe asks, nodding toward the RM burnt into her hide.
Aaron shrugs unconcerned, “We’ll cut it out.”
“Aye…” Joe mutters, shaking his head.
Holding open the gate, Joe waits while Aaron leads the cow through and up into the scrub. He begins to close it, but thinks better of it.
Joe rattles the wooden gate, “What will we do about this?”
“Do about what?” Aaron calls over his shoulder.
Joe makes a sweeping gesture with his hand, “Well, if there’s no obvious damage to the brush fencing, how can it be possible she escaped?”
Aaron shrugs his shoulders, “Kick the bleeding thing down then.”
Putting the heel of his boot against the brush, Joe leans into it, the section of brushwood bowing and cracking under his weight.
“You’d be in a right mess without me, Sherritt.” Joe winks, fastening the gate shut.
Holding the rope and reins in one hand, Aaron vaults into the saddle.
“You’ll have to ride closely behind the cow Joe, to keep her moving” He instructs, tugging on the rope to bring the beast closer to his mare, who snorts, nervously, at the cows long horns.
Joe takes the reins from where they are looped over the scrub and places them over Music’s neck, resting them on the pommel of his saddle. Sliding his boot into the stirrup, Joe mounts into the saddle, lengthening the reins as Music begins to prance.
Aaron clicks his tongue, edging his mare into a walk; the cow follows for a few steps then stops, pulling back against the rope. Reaching for a branch of wattle, Joe breaks it and rides Music up close beside the cow, which stands, braced against the taut rope, her white tail flicking back and forth.
“Get on!” Joe hisses through gritted teeth, slapping the branch down across the animals back, sending her jumping forward.
Music shy’s at the cow’s sudden movement and spins away excitedly, leaving Joe clutching a fist full of her mane to retain his balance. Kicking his mare forward, Joe rises out of the stirrups as Music breaks into a trot, following closely behind Aaron and the cow.
The mounting afternoon shadow stretches along the gully, as Joe and Aaron dismount behind Ned Kennedy’s abandoned milking yard. Tethering their horses to the length of moss covered paling, they lead the young white cow into the stockyard.
Taking a rusty knife from his saddlebag, Aaron waves it at Joe. “Lucky I came prepared ain’t it?”
Joe stares at Aaron in disbelief, as his eyes run over the blunt and corroded blade. “That effing thing wouldn’t slice a loaf bread, you idjit.”
“Eh?” Aaron mutters in ignorance, rolling up his sleeves to display freckled forearms.
Joe grasps the knife from his mate, “I will not let you use this godforsaken thing!” He growls angrily, throwing it to the muddy ground. “This has to be done properly Aaron. It has to be a swift cut, you cannot simply saw at the cow’s throat as if it were a log of old ironbark.”
Aaron shoves Joe backwards, “You got something to use then, Byrne?” He spits.
“You’ll have to go and get a better knife.” Joe says firmly.
Aaron shakes his head, his mouth curving, mockingly, at Joe. “I ain’t riding up the gully to get a different sodding knife. It’ll be dark soon, then where will we effing be?”
Joe steps closer to Aaron, his voice a low hiss. “You use that knife on this beast Sherritt, and I’ll cut you like a calf!”
“If you want to use a different knife, go and bleeding get one.” Aaron mutters, undeterred.
Riding past his mother’s selection and the surrounding Chinese huts, Joe halts Music outside the homestead of Archibald and Jane Batchelor, and dismounts. The larrikin heels of his bluchers echoing off the veranda as he walks along the timber boards.
Joe knocks heavily at the front door, the sudden movement of a lace curtain catches his attention as it is pulled across, the stern face of Jane Batchelor peers through the glass at him.
“Good afternoon Mrs Batchelor.” Joe calls, briefly touching the rim of his hat.
Jane turns from the window, “It is young Byrne, from next door!” She calls, her voice carrying onto the veranda.
The curtain is dropped over the glass, the smell of stew wafting up Joe’s nose as the door is pulled open.
The black dressed woman looks hard at Joe, her lips pursed. “What can I do you for Joseph?” She asks.
“Well, you see ma’am, I’ve got a calf down a hole on Limeburners Flat, so was hoping you’d be kind enough to lend me a knife and steel?”
“Stay here a minute and I will find what you require.” She responds, closing the door behind herself.
Joe walks out from under the shade of the veranda and gazes up towards Byrnes Gap, his mind laced with anxiety at what he’d gotten himself into.
The creaking of the door sends his attention back to the homestead, as Jane steps onto the veranda, the knives and steel extending like weapons from her bent fingers.
“Here you are, Joseph.” She huffs, flicking her wrist. “I will be wanting them back, mind.”
Joe takes the knives and steel from her and tips his hat, “Aye, of course ma’am.”
Untying his reins from the hitching rail, Joe leads Music around the side of the weatherboard house, the heavy gaze of Jane Batchelor burning into his back.
Dismounting in front of the stable, Joe leads Music into her box and unsaddles her. Taking a leaf of oaten hay from the open bale, he drops it over the rail of her stall while Music slurps, thirstily, from a bucket of water.
Joe steps outside and immerses his bit into the water trough, rubbing away the remnants of grass that have collected in the copper join. Behind him, the whistling of Denny grows louder. Joe turns and watches as his younger brother hops toward him, a bridle swinging from his shoulder.
Hanging his bridle on the brass hook in the stable, Joe waits while Denny does the same, his eyes settling on the drips of gleaming oil that run down the cheek strap.
Denny turns to leave, but Joe grasps his arm.
“Did you remember to rub the excess oil off?” He asks, nodding toward the bridle.
His brother’s freckled cheeks glow red. “Ah, I um…I was about to Joe…” Denny stumbles.
“Fetch a rag and give the leather a wipe down, you know better than to leave it in that condition.” Joe instructs.
“Alright Joe…” The young boy sighs, digging a hand into the bag of torn up clothing.
Suddenly, the sharp voice of Margret sounds from the veranda.
“Denny, it’s time you brought the goats down from the gully!” Margret calls.
“I’m coming Ma!” He answers, dropping the bridle onto the chaff bag.
Collecting the knives and steel, Joe moves out from the stable and toward the house, where Margret stands under the veranda, watching while young Elly runs around the tangle of thorns of a rose bush, a rag doll flapping in her hand.
Nearing his sister, Joe goes to ruffle her hair, but Elly squeals and ducks behind Margret, shielding herself from the brother she doesn’t know.
Margret’s hooded eyes glare at Joe, “And just where in heavens name have you been Joseph?” She demands, “I brought fresh Parkin Cake up earlier, for you and Denny, and all I find is the poor child struggling alone with the axe!”
Joe swallows the lump in his throat, his eyes dropping to the knives in his hand. “I was up at Kennedy’s with Aaron Ma; we have one of his beast’s in Ned’s old milking yard.”
Margret shakes her head, and sighs, disappointment clouding her words. “Oh I see, away with Sherritt again…”
“Ma, it’s not like that…” Joe begins, “I promise we will bring you back half the carcass when we have it butchered.”
Margret gathers Elly up into her arms, “You best be telling me the truth, that it is Sherritt’s Joseph, if it isn’t, you’ll have us all in gaol…”
Making his way up behind the Byrne selection, Joe’s ears prick at the sound of his name being called. He stops and turns, his eyes falling on Denny’s plaid cap as he weaves through the trees.
“Joe, wait for me!” Denny shouts, his voice mixing with the creaking limbs of Macrocarpa.
Joe looks up at the darkening sky, in less than a couple of hours it would be dark.
“I can’t wait for you Denny.” Joe answers sharply, picking up his pace.
Aaron’s chestnut mare, Chloe, stands sleepily beside the yard, resting her hind leg. Her left ear flickers as Joe and Denny approach.
Climbing through the rails, Joe’s gaze falls on Aaron as he leans against the old milking shed, kicking his boots through the drain in the dirt.
He looks up as Joe nears, “Where the effing hell have you been?”
Joe ignores the question and turns to his brother. “Alright Denny, up you go and fetch those goats for Ma.”
“Can’t I stay and watch Joe?” He sulks.
“Why of course you can, young grasshopper.” Aaron smirks.
“No.” Joe says firmly, jabbing the steel into Aaron’s waistcoat.
Aaron wrenches the steel from Joe’s hand, “Why can’t the damn kid watch?”
“Do you want him to be here watching all this?” Joe replies heatedly.
“Just give me the bleeding knife Joe.” Aaron orders.
Thrusting the knife handle at his mate, Joe watches as Denny walks up the gully, his hands slapping against his tweed trousers.
The cow stands beside the wooden gate of the yard, wrapping her tongue around tufts of grass under the paling. Picking up the length of rope, Aaron leads the beast into the middle of the yard He places a foot on the rope and runs the knife back and forward along the steel.
The cow’s tongue darts up into each nostril, her large black eyes looking warily at the scrapping metal.
“Ready?” Aaron asks, throwing the steel onto the dirt.
Joe licks his dry lips nervously and grips his hands around her horns. In response, the cow shakes her head, trying to free herself from the constraint of his grasp.
“Just keep her bloody head still Joe!” Aaron curses, levelling the knife at her throat.
“I effing well am you idjit”! Joe snaps, his arms trembling.
Aaron slices the knife into the flesh of the cow’s neck. She bellows sharply, bright crimson spraying from the laceration at her throat. Joe releases his grip on the beast’s horns and jumps backwards as she sways and lands with a thud, a river of blood gushes from the wound, mixing with the dirt. A murder of crows who had been watching from the tree limbs, fly towards them and land on the gate, cawing hungrily at the blood leached carcass.
Rolling a log alongside the cow’s back, Joe and Aaron prop the body against it. Making a couple of small slices in the hide, Aaron cuts out the brand and slips the pieces into his pocket.
While Joe collects the second knife from the ground, a redheaded figure catches his attention, as the stocky man edges towards the yard.
Joe straightens, and clutches Aaron’s shoulder. “Effing Sandy Doig is coming up the hill!” He hisses.
Aaron lifts his head, a bead of sweat rolls down his forehead toward the mole in his cheek. “What are you complaining about now?”
The Scottish voice of Sandy Doig suddenly cuts through the silence.
“Do ye call yourself a butcher son?” He calls.
Joe looks nervously at the redheaded Scotsman and turns to Aaron, who skins down the beasts lower jaw and cuts out the tongue.
“Aye.” Aaron growls, holding up the pink muscle.
“You’ll see trouble for this.” The Scotsman foretells, and turns away from the yard.
Joe swallows the fear that rises and begins to sharpen the knife, watching with narrowed gaze, as Sandy retreats back down the gully…