Severed Ties

The wind battered limbs of Eucalyptus trees roar loudly in Joe’s ears as he makes his way down the moonlit slope of Byrnes Gully. Ahead of him, Aaron leads his chestnut mare, Chloe, through the scrub. Hessian bags, bulging with freshly slaughtered meat, swing from the saddle as his mare negotiates the loose ground.

Clasped in Joe’s hands are the head and tongue of the cow, dry blood crusted around its nose, its large, lifeless eyes shine in the moonlight. Stories he had read during his days at the Woolshed Catholic School, of Viking warriors returning home with the heads of their enemies, flash, harshly, through his mind.

***

Between the sparse limbs of Macrocarpa trees, the Byrne house comes into sight, smoke rising from the chimney in wispy curls.
Nearing the fence line, the sound of hooves echo as Denny’s Welsh cob, Wallace, canters towards them.
“Stop your dawdling, and come and open this sliprail Joe!” Aaron curses over his shoulder, while Chloe begins to prance and toss her head excitedly at the sight of the gelding.
Aaron jerks on the reins, the curb bit snapping in his mare’s mouth. “Bloody well stand! It’s an effing pony!”
Dropping the head and tongue on the dewy ground, Joe lifts the sliprail and holds out his arms to keep Wallace back.
Aaron lead’s Chloe through the gap, leaning his weight heavily against her shoulder, as she tries to rush through the opening, her tail swishing angrily against her rump.
“She in season Aaron?” Joe laughs, repositioning the rail between the fence posts.
“Effing well seems like it.” Aaron mutters, slapping a hand on her flank to keep her moving forward.

***

Passing around the side of the house, his father’s discarded wheelbarrow and axe gleam in the rising moonlight, remnants of a severed promise.
Joe places the head and tongue into the barrow, and gathers the remaining wood into his arms, stacking it with the rest.
“What are you doing now?” Aaron hisses, as he leads his mare past him.
Joe brushes away the splinters that stick to his tweed jacket. “What I should have done this morning Aaron, instead of going off with you to butcher a stolen cow.”
“Give it a bleeding rest would you.” Aaron mutters. “You’re like some old woman.”
Joe scowls and pushes the wheelbarrow forward, the wheel trundling noisily across the uneven ground.

***

Leaving the barrow around the side of the stable, Joe enters the darkened building. Music snorts nervously as he approaches her stall. Holding out his hand, he allows her to sniff his familiar scent.
“Got that lamp on yet?” Aaron’s voice calls from the entrance, the jingle of his mare’s bridle resounds as she tosses her head.
“Give me a minute.” Joe answers, lifting the kerosene lamp from where it hangs against the wall.
Placing it on the old chest of drawers, he removes the elongated globe and twists the wick above the burner. Fumbling for the matchbox, Joe retrieves it from the drawer and takes out a match, striking it against the side of the box, the yellow flame crackling as he holds it above the kerosene infused wick.
Replacing the globe over the flame, Joe holds the lamp aloft while Aaron leads Chloe into the stall next to Music, who nickers at the sight of the mare.
“I’m not looking forward to hearing what Ma has to say about all this.” Joe sighs, unable to shake the feeling of dread that clouds his mind.
Aaron tugs the rope free from the rings on his saddle, “Ah, she’ll be fine Joe.” He replies, the hessian bags falling, with a thud, on the hay covered ground.
Joe looks over at his mother’s house, the silhouetted shadow of Margret moving behind the laced covered window.
“I’ll go and put the head and tongue in the old trough.” He says, turning out of the stable.
Aaron drops the bagged meat over the rail. “What will I use to see, if you take the lamp?”
“There are candles in that top drawer there, take one out and light it.” Joe replies irritably.
Aaron slings the other bag over his shoulder, “And how am I supposed to find them if you take off with the bloody lamp?”
Cursing under his breath, Joe wrenches the drawer open, the collection of candles rolling noisily within. He takes one out and throws the waxy stick and matchbox at his mate.
Aaron snatches them up from the gloomy hay. “What’s gotten into you?”
“All this damned nonsense.” Joe responds angrily. “That effing snob Sandy Doig saw us Aaron, and where do you reckon the bloody cove will be headed tomorrow morning?”
“How the hell would he know it wasn’t one of my cattle?” Aaron asks, removing the saddle from Chloe’s back.
“It wasn’t all effing skin and bone Aaron!” Joe retorts.
“Sulk if you wish.” Aaron shrugs, “But I’m sure your Ma will be thankful for the beef.”
“Aye…She’ll be thankful.” Joe sighs.

***

The door of his father’s old tool shed squeaks loudly on its rusted hinges, as Joe kicks it open. Entering the shed, the scratching of a mouse resounds around the cluttered space as it scurries behind an old chaff bag. Joe’s eyes scan the walls, falling on the old crosscut saw that is wedged behind a plank of timber; its shadow wavers against the wall in the lamplight. Picking up the shallow zinc basin, Joe places it on top of an old milking crate and lowers the head and tongue onto its surface.
Stepping out of the shed, Joe watches as Aaron’s shadowy figure moves across the grass, the hessian bag slung over his shoulder. He thumps heavily against the door, which is then pulled open, illuminating the veranda in yellow light.
Joe gazes up at the moon, a drifting cover of cloud moves across it, obscuring the spheres’ milky light. Distinguishing the light, Joe leans against the slab wall of the shed and closes his eyes. In the distance, the shriek of plovers echo across the flat, mixing with the Cantonese shouts of Chinaman from the neighbouring huts.

***

Immersing his hands into the wash basin under the veranda, Joe scrubs at the blood that is crusted over his fingers, the murmured voices of Aaron and Kate slipping under the door.
Joe dries his cleaned hands on the towel that hangs from the edge of the bench, and turns the brass handle of the door, the press of warmth immediate as he steps inside.

***

Removing his porkpie hat, Joe hangs it beside Aaron’s on the hook and turns from the door, his eyes falling on the side table, where pots full of jam and domed shaped scones, partly covered in muslin, spread over its surface.
“Been busy I see Kate.” Joe gestures.
Kate glances towards the table, “Well, the scones were left over from Mrs Feely, but I did make the quince and rhubarb jams. Aaron thinks I’ve made the rhubarb too sweet, but I think it’s alright. Would you like to try a little?”
Joe nods, “Aye, I’ll try some of your jam.”
Kate spreads a layer of butter over the scone, adorning it with a spoonful of the ruby coloured jam.
“Careful that doesn’t put a hole in your teeth, Joe.” Aaron jests from the hearth, spooning a second serve of stewed oxtail onto his plate.
Kate sticks her tongue out at him, and passes Joe the scone; he takes a bite, the jam sticking, like glue, to his gums.
Covering his mouth, Joe thumps his other hand against the paper lined wall, mocking as if he is choking.
“I, I sure hope the dentist will be at Tanswell’s on Monday.” He splutters cheekily.
Kate rolls her eyes, “Oh, you two are rotten…”
“We’re just having a lark Kate.” Joe replies, nudging her in the arm.
Taking out his father’s old whiskey flask, Joe nods towards Aaron, as he sits himself down in the rocking chair. “Has he already put the meat in the casks?”
Kate places a grainy loaf of bread onto the board, “Yes,” she answers, cutting a slice. “Ma covered it in brine when he first brought it in.”
“Where is Ma?” Joe asks, taking a swig of whiskey.
Kate gestures towards the darkened hallway, “She’s tucking little Elly into bed.”
Joe begins to pull out a chair as the patter of small footsteps echo from the passageway.
“Joe!” Mary giggles, as she emerges from the hall, her nightgown sweeping over the floorboards.
Joe crouches down and holds his arms open. His younger sister rushes towards him and buries herself into his chest, hugging him tightly.
“Ma said you weren’t coming home tonight.” She snuffles, holding Joe’s blue handkerchief over her nose.
Joe glances briefly up toward Margret as she repositions the curtain over the doorway.
“Is that the same cloth I gave you this morning Mary?” He frowns.
Mary nods, her blue eyes watery, “It is, but Ma washed it and dried it by the fire. Isn’t that right Kate?”
“She wouldn’t be made use any other.” Kate beams.
Joe ruffles the top of Mary’s head and sits at the table. Beside him, seven year old Margret sits on a chair; a pillow propped at her back. A small bowl of mashed potato is positioned in front of her, splodges of it trailing from the bowl to the edge of the table.
She smiles widely at her brother; exposing two recently lost front teeth. “Ma made me potato snow, now that I am better.” She gabbles through her gums.
Joe leans across and brushes a strand of copper hair out of her mouth, “Well, you be a good girl and eat that up for Ma, won’t you?”
Young Margret nods and digs her spoon deep into the potato, tipping half of the mash onto the table before it reaches her mouth.
“Here”, Joe says, taking the spoon from her and tapping it against the rim of the bowl, “You don’t need to take so much.”
“Wouldn’t young Joe here make a first class Da.” Aaron laughs, rocking back on the chair.
Ignoring the remark, Joe looks toward his mother, “Where’s Denny?” He asks.
Margret removes the wooden spoon from the cast iron pot and rests it on the handle.
“He’s asleep, Joseph.” She replies, reaching for a porcelain plate. “It has been a big day for the poor soul. He’s never been made chop so much wood on his own before.”
Joe takes the steaming plate from Margret, shards of light reflecting in her narrowed blue eyes.
“Ma, I never…” He begins, searching for understanding.
Margret cuts him off with a raise of her hand, “You don’t need to explain anything to me Joseph.” She replies bitterly, “You did what you did.”

***

Finishing the remainder of the stew, Joe slides the knife and fork onto his plate and pushes it away from himself.
“Done here Aaron?” Margret asks, pointing a finger toward the plate, that rests, precariously, on his knee.
Aaron steadies it with his hand, “Aye Mrs Byrne, but I can clear it away.”
“Leave it for me you mean?” Kate jokes, returning from the passage.
She takes the plate from his knee, as Aaron raises his arms in vain protest. “Give a man a chance Katie.”
Scraping the bones into a dish, Margret submerges the plates into the basin and reaches across the table for Joe’s, but Aaron stops her.
“I’ll take this one Mrs Byrne.” He bows, with a show of gallantry. “That was a good bit of oxtail you had there.”
“Thank you Aaron.” Margret replies, taking the plate from him, “Paddy received it in payment for a cart of wood he delivered to the Batchelor’s.”
Aaron sits himself down beside Kate, “Well, you’ll be right for the winter with the beef Joe and I brought for you.”
Placing a washed plate onto the wooden rack, Margret turns to Joe.
“Whose meat is it?” She enquires, her lips thin.
Joe glances toward Aaron, who covers Kate’s eyes with his hand as she attempts to thread her needle.
“Well, whose is it Joseph?” Margret repeats.
Joe clears his throat, “It is Aaron’s Ma, as I told you previously.”
She gazes hard at him and turns to face Aaron.
“You cannot possibly lead me to believe, that the meat you placed in those casks…” She pauses and flicks a hand toward the barrels that are placed beside the door, “Was from one of your beasts Sherritt.”
“It knocked up coming home from Barambogie, Mrs Byrne.” Aaron begins, “When I had it in Kennedy’s yard, I came down for Joe and we killed it.”
In reply, Margret rises from the table, the chair scraping noisily against the floor as she pushes it away from herself.
Removing her woollen shawl from the hook at the door, Margret drapes it around her shoulders. “Joe, a word outside if I may.” She orders, pulling the door ajar.

***

The howl of gumtrees sound as Joe stands under the veranda.
Margret pulls her shawl tighter around her sloping shoulders, “Do you realise you could have me sent to gaol Joseph? Do you have any idea of the trouble you will have brought this family, if the meat in those casks is found by the police?”
“I’ve already told you, it’s Aaron’s meat Ma.” He replies firmly, wishing his words were true.
Margret lurches forward and slaps her hand across Joe’s face; the force of her anger burning across his cheek.
“Enough!” She cries, her voice shaking with anger. “For heaven’s sake, enough! You will have me thrown in prison for this!”
Margret backs away from Joe suddenly, her hand covering her mouth as it falls open in horror. “What will happen to my children? Oh dear lord, they will be taken from me…My children will be taken!”
“Now Ma…” Joe says softly, stepping closer to Margret in an attempt to settle her.
“What have you done to me? What life have you made for me?” Margret mumbles to herself, trembling against the chill of night. “You wouldn’t allow me happiness with Antonio, and now…”
Margret clutches at her neckline, chocking on the grief that consumes her, her eyes glaring wildly at Joe. “I want you and Sherritt out of here, do you understand? I want the both of you away from my home!”
Joe stands motionless as she disappears back inside. He kicks at the dirt beneath his feet and falls onto the bench, his head clasped in is hands.

***

The wind rattles harshly around the stable, the collection of breastplates and bridles reverberate against the light dappled walls. Leaning beside Music’s stall, Joe runs his hand back and forth along her neck, her ears flicking towards Aaron as he stands at the entrance, biting noisily into an apple.
Joe looks over at him, the lamplight casting jagged shadows against the wall.
“I need to relieve me self.” Aaron mutters, disappearing around the corner of the stable.
The thud of the front door catches Joe’s attention. He steps back toward the middle of the stable and watches as Kate steps out from under the veranda, a lamp extending from her hand.
Entering the stable, Kate smiles sorrowfully and passes the blankets to Joe, “I thought you might be in need of these tonight.”
“Thank you Kate.” Joe replies, laying them down over the straw.
She touches his arm briefly, “I’m sorry about Ma, but she does have reason to be worried Joe.”
He turns from his sister and shakes his head, “I’ll never do right by her…” Joe sighs, the words jabbing at his throat.
Kate hugs him closely, “It’ll be alright Joe. Really it will.”
Suddenly, Aaron’s voice cuts through the silence, “You got any of that whiskey left Joe?” He yells from outside, “I’m bleeding dry at the moment.”
Kate rolls her eyes, “Oh well”, she begins, “I better head back inside before Ma knows I’m out here.”
“Leaving me without a kiss are you?” Aaron grumbles, sarcastically, his arm circling her waist.
“Goodnight Aaron, goodnight Joe” She laughs, kissing them each on the cheek.

***

Sitting against the wall of the stable, Joe removes his bluchers and throws them against the chaff bag.
“I’m surprised you haven’t ridden back up the gully.” He begins, turning to Aaron as he unfurls his blanket.
“I haven’t got the energy to be resaddling my mare. Anyway, your Ma will be calmed down by the morning Joe.” He drawls sleepily.
Joe lays himself down and looks up at the murky tin roof, the final words of Sandy Doig repeating in his mind as he drifts into sleep. “You’ll see trouble for this.”…“You’ll see trouble for this.”…“You’ll see trouble for this.”…

***

Joe turns, uncomfortably, on the straw. The bright morning sun streams through the chinks in the wall, he covers a hand over his eyes, and listens to the soft warble of Magpies.
Beside him, the rattling snores of Aaron continue to grow louder.
Joe elbows him roughly in the ribs, “Shut up, you idjit.” He hisses.
Aaron splutters and opens an eye, “Do that again if you’re game.” He sneers, his breath heavy with condensation.
“You make more effing noise than the bloody horses.” Joe mutters, propping himself against the wall.
“Kate’s never complained.” Aaron winks.
Joe rolls his eyes and fills his pipe. “You still got the matches?”
Aaron reaches over for his jacket and rummages through the pocket, tossing the small box onto Joe’s tweed covered shin.
Lighting the bowl, Joe sucks hungrily on the pipe, “I’m desperate for a draw of opium.” He sighs, smoke swirling from his mouth.
“Ah, you need to give up that brown stuff.” Aaron mutters, as he puts his jacket on. “Not good for your brain.”
Joe’s blue eyes flick up to the roof, “You’d be fine to keep smoking it then.” He replies through gritted teeth.

***

Rubbing tiredly at his eyes, Joe’s ears prick at the clattering sound that nears the stable. He looks across to Aaron who shrugs, a strand of lucerne hay protruding from his lips.
“Could be your Ma coming over to apologise.” Aaron mumbles.
Joe leans forward and looks out, his eyes falling on Kate as she walks towards them, carrying a tray with two pannikins and thick slices of bread, slathered in butter and jam.
“Ma’s still fuming.” She begins, placing the tray onto the draws.
“But I couldn’t let you two go hungry on such a frosty morning.” She smiles, handing Joe a steaming cup of tea.
Wrapping his fingers around the cup, Joe sighs at the heat that radiates through the metal, warming the numbness of his hands. Reaching into his pocket, Joe takes out his father’s old flask and pours a nip of whiskey into the steaming pannikin.
Aaron snatches the flask from him and puts it to his lips, gulping the liquor.
Dropping the flask onto the hay, Aaron playfully cups his hands around Kate’s face, who gasps in surprise.
“Aaron!” She exclaims, “Your hands, they are nothing but ice!”
“Indeed they are, my girl.” Aaron laughs. “I needed you out here last night Katie. Your darling brother ain’t real affectionate. I don’t know how poor Bess copes on cold nights”
Joe shakes his head and turns, taking a slice of bread from the tray.
“What will you two be doing today?” Kate asks, passing Aaron a slice of bread. “I don’t think Ma would appreciate having you back in the house just yet.”
“We’ll be taking the rest of the meat up to Sheepstation Creek.” Aaron replies, his mouth full of bread.
“Oh Aaron…” Kate groans, averting her eyes from the half chewed bread in his mouth.
“What?” Aaron replies, ignorantly.
Grasping the dandy brush from the crate, Joe throws it at Aaron.                                              “Close your mouth, you idjit!” He snaps. “You eat worse than Denny!”

***

In the distance, the Sherritt homestead comes into view. Two large paddocks, enclosed with post and rail, are scattered with sheep. The line of bare cherry plum trees sway in the late autumn breeze as they near the front gate.
Dismounting, Joe and Aaron tether their horses to the hitching rail, positioned under an old Red Box tree.
“What about the meat?” Joe asks, gesturing to the hessian bag tied around the cantle of his saddle as Aaron turns away from it.
“Hmm?” He mumbles, looking down the paddock to where he and his father’s cows are grazing.
Joe follows Aaron’s gaze to the heard of scrawny Angus cattle, “It’s rather late to be wishing you’d butchered one of them instead.” He mutters.
“Leave the meat.” Aaron huffs, flicking a hand towards the hessian bag, “I’ll be back for that.”

***

From under the veranda, Anne Sherritt stands, sweeping a broom backwards and forwards along the rug at the doorstep. She looks up as they approach and rests the broom handle against the slab wall.
“Just where have you been Aaron?” She calls.
Aaron smirks back at Joe and swaggers up the path, the flock of fowls scuttling from his feet.
“Been with me other family, haven’t I?” He jokes, kissing her on the cheek.
“Get away with you.” She laughs, and opens the door, beckoning both Joe and Aaron inside.

***

From the back door, Joe watches as Bessie scatters chicken feed onto the ground, a trail of clucking hens following her. Quietly, Joe walks up behind her, his arms sliding around her waist and lifts her up, the small bucket of grain falling from her hand.
“Put me down Joseph!” She laughs in vain protest.
“Make me lass.” He whispers, letting his lips pluck at her ear.
Bessie hits her fists against his back, “Joe, I have jobs to do!”
“Let’s ride down to the gully Bess.” Joe smiles cheekily, carrying her out of the yard.

***

Bessie’s hair is soft against his face, as they ride back up along the gully.
“I’ve missed you lass.” Joe murmurs, tucking a stand of dark hair behind her ear.
She turns in the saddle, her hazel eyes determined. “I have missed you too Joe, but it’s no reason to be careless when jobs need tending to.”
“Aye…” Joe sighs, guiding Music over the rocks.

***

“Young Byrne, it’s good to see you.” John Sherritt calls from behind him.
Joe loosens Music’s girth and turns to face him, John’s eyes crinkling as he smiles broadly.
“How have you been Mr Sherritt?” Joe inquires.
John rolls up his dirt crusted sleeves, “I’ve not been too bad, son. Bit of hassle from the wife, but that’s to be expected isn’t it?” He replies, dragging a finger down over his brandy stained moustache.
Joe smiles politely and shifts his gaze, as Bessie walks towards them.
“What’s with that meat Aaron has?” She asks, her lips pursed.
John’s face hardens. “Meat? What meat Elizabeth?”
“He’s inside showing it to Mother and William.” She gestures toward the house.

“Oh, he is, is he?’ John mutters, his jaw hardening.

***

Joe and Aaron stand beside the dining table, which Anne has covered with sheets of newspaper from the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, the meat and hide resting across it.
John’s heavy brow furrows. “Who knocked the jimmy* off?” He asks, running his dirt veined index finger over the hide.
“I did that me self Da.” Aaron replies.
John taps his finger through the hole in the hide and onto the newspaper, “Why did you slice it here?”
Aaron shrugs, “It was just where I decided to cut it.”
John looks up to Aaron, “Who helped you divide the carcass?”
“Old Harry from Sebastopol, I asked if he’d help before I went to get Joe.” Aaron replies, meeting his father’s gaze.
“Harry Thompson, the miner?” John quizzes.
Aaron nods, “That’s him.”
John clears his throat, “What brand was the beast carrying, son?”
“My own brand, A and S with a half circle.” Aaron lies calmly.
John looks across to Joe, his hazel eyes narrowed. “Is all this correct Joseph?”
Joe swallows and tips his head. “Aye Mr Sherritt, it is correct.”
John glances toward sixteen year old William Sherritt, who sits beside the hearth, running a dampened rag over a stirrup leather.
“William, take this meat and put it out in the casks.” He orders.
Joe looks over to William, his concentration still taken by the strip of leather.
John slaps his hand firmly against the table, “William, you bloody fool, take this meat out!”
William jumps to his feet and stammers. “Yes certainly Da, I um, I was just…”
Taking a knife, John slices down the hide in two long strips, obscuring the hole where the brand had been removed.
He passes the strips to Aaron, “Tie these over the bark on the veranda.”
“Yes Da.” Aaron replies, walking outside.
John looks hard at Joe, “Now, if the constabulary pay a visit, it won’t be so bloody obvious.” He mutters, following his son out onto the veranda.
From the corner of his eye, Joe catches Bessie glaring at him, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Where’s it from Joe?” She asks, her voice low with anger.
“It was one of Aaron’s Bess, you have to believe me.” Joe replies.

unnamed J

Looking for understanding, he moves toward her, taking her hand in his, but she snatches it away.
“Don’t lie to my face Joseph.” She spits, “None of Aaron’s cows are in such good condition that they’d produce meat like that!”
Joe bites his lip, attempting to hold back what he cannot say. “Bess please…”
“If this sees him locked up I’ll never forgive you Joseph, you hear? I’ll never forgive you!” She cries, her hand clamping over her mouth as she begins to sob…

*The ‘jimmy’ is the hide, as described by Aaron in his evidence against Daniel Kelty.

2 thoughts on “Severed Ties

  1. Margret’s bitterness is understandable in the circumstances but it does seem like Joe was always bound to do the wrong thing, no matter how hard he tried. Tough times can make people do things they normally wouldn’t. It’s easy to judge, especially with hindsight, but unless you’ve been faced with the same circumstances you can’t really say what you would have done.

    I find the relationship between Joe and Aaron very interesting. They seem so very different that it’s almost surprising that they would be friends.

    Like

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