In the grip of a bitter and isolated June winter, the gang had taken refuge in an abandoned miner’s hut, positioned above the snowline on Mount Buffalo. They had spent many weeks living within the concealed safety of the hut, relying on Tom Lloyd, Wild Wright and other closely trusted sympathisers to bring them fresh supplies and news of police movements. The last week, particularly, had been hard for the four young men, with Steve returning home after a disagreement with Ned, and Joe dealing, both with ill health, and constant questions regarding Aaron’s loyalty from the Lloyd’s and Quinn’s…
Sitting with his back to the fire, Joe’s pale blue eyes stare down at the bottle of gin clasped between his knees, his fingers numbly twisting the topaz ring that protrudes from his little finger. Beside him, Ned shaves a plug of tobacco, his heavy brow furrowed as he works the pocket knife through the cake. From the opposite side of the hut, Dan sleeps, his muffled snores breaking the heavy silence that hangs between Joe and Ned. His head resting on a rolled-up potato sack, the butt of his Colt Navy sticking out from under it, Dan’s dark moustache twitching slightly with each rise and fall of his broad chest.
Ned’s hazel eyes flick across to his young brother, “Couldn’t be any louder if he bloody well tried.” He mutters.
Joe smiles regretfully at the sight of the eighteen year old, enjoying what rest can be afforded in their position, and shifts uncomfortably on the wooden stool. He clutches a hand around his waistcoat, unable to ignore the sharp stabbing pain in his stomach that has plagued him for much of the day.
“You alright Joe?” Ned asks, glancing sideways at his mates hunched form.
Gritting his teeth, Joe nods, “Aye, nothing I ain’t used to.”
“Should take some of that stuff you got from your brother.” Ned says, his gaze returning to the cake of tobacco in his hand.
Joe fingers the small vial in his jacket pocket and shakes his head, “I haven’t got much left, and I don’t want to be wasting it…” he breaks off, groaning as another bout of cramps sends him doubling over in pain.
As if alerted by something outside, Ned cocks his ear suddenly and moves toward the window, stepping over several discarded whiskey bottles that lie on the dirt floor. Lifting the small square of fabric, he looks out at the snow-covered surrounds. The bright streak of sunlight illuminating the dust that collects in the air.
“Everything right mate?” Joe asks cautiously, his hand resting on the butt of his Tranter revolver.
“Tom, he should be up soon with provisions.” Ned replies, dropping the fabric back over the smudgy pane of glass.
From his bunk, Dan coughs and rises, rubbing groggily at his narrowed eyes. Joe watches as he moves himself to the edge of the bed and rummages a hand beneath the iron frame, driving a trail in the dirt as he pulls out the wooden brandy case.
“You already drink that last bottle of brandy, Joe?” Dan asks, flicking his dark hair back from his face.
“Hmm?” Joe mumbles, his attention taken by the increasing burning in his stomach.
“The bloody brandy, did you finish it Joe?” Dan repeats, irritation lacing his words.
“Oh, the brandy.” Joe begins, dragging a hand across his forehead, “Neddie and I drunk that over a game of crib.”
Dan kicks the case back under the bunk, “Of course you buggers did.” He grumbles.
“Was a grand bottle too.” Joe says cheekily, lifting the bottle of gin to his lips.
Mumbling to himself, Dan picks up the Colt Navy, and slides the barrel of the weapon into his belt.
He points a long finger toward the bottle in Joe’s hand, “”Will you at least allow me a mouthful of gin?”
Joe raises an eyebrow, “I didn’t think you liked the taste, old man?”
“I don’t. But it’s a damn sight more drinkable than that cursed stuff Ned collected from the creek this morning.” Dan acknowledges.
Ned looks up at his brother, as he places the plug of tobacco in his pipe bowl, “It’s right enough for tea, Danny.”
“Get away with your damn tea!” Joe interrupts animatedly, “He needs something stronger than that.”
“Here,” he says, holding the bottle aloft, “Have a swig of this.”
Dan takes it from him, turning away as he lifts the bottle to his lips.
“Don’t want me to see you grimacing, eh old man?” Joe chuckles, before clutching firmly at his stomach.
Joe rocks on the stool, in a vain attempt to ride out the discomfort, but it is of little use.
“Eff it…” He groans, shoving a hand into his pocket.
Removing the small vial of laudanum, Joe’s eyes flick over the embellished skull and cross bones as he pulls the cork free. He sticks out his tongue and coats it with a layer of the reddish-brown liquid and swallows. Flipping the bottle over in his palm, Joe reads the print, warning of a bitter taste, and scoffs. His sense of taste long since gone.
Within moments, the pain in his belly dissipates. Sighing with relief, he rubs at his tired, hooded eyes.
“You should try for a bit of sleep Joe.” Ned advises.
“Aye.” Joe yawns, removing the Tranter from his belt.
Sitting on the bunk, he tugs at the larrikin heel of his Chelsea boot, the leather sticking to his naked feet. Pulling off the second, he places both boots under the bunk and rubs at the callouses that cover the balls of his feet. His thoughts wandering to his sister Kate, who had knitted him a pair of green woollen socks for the coming winter. “I don’t want your feet getting cold Joe.” She had told him. The wool had been a welcome comfort on Joe’s feet, but the narrowness of his boots, left room enough for his bare feet only.
Joe lays himself down, the iron frame of the bunk creaking under his weight as he turns onto his side. His ears catching on the hushed conversation between Ned and Dan as he drifts, slowly, into sleep.
The familiar whistle of Tom Lloyd wakes him from his slumber. Joe opens his eyes just as Ned drapes his heavy overcoat around his shoulders and moves toward the door. Removing the iron pin, he drags open the door and steps out.
Joe sits himself up and slides on his boots, watching as Tom enters the hut. Bundled in his arms is a grey sheet, the contents concealed within pressing against the fabric.
“Tom, it’s good to see you.” Dan smiles, holding out his hand.
Tom grasps it, shaking it firmly. “And you too, young Danny.”
Clearing the collection of newspapers from the table, Joe lifts the bundle from Tom and places it on the greasy surface.
“How have you been Joe?” Tom asks, his attention fixed on untying the length of rope.
“Better for seeing all this.” Joe replies, eyeing the bottles of five-star brandy, tins of sardines and preserved sheep tongues, jam pots and muslin wrapped scones that tumble out from the unfastened sheet.
Tom gestures toward the empty tins that are piled in an old gin case. “I thought you blokes might be getting low on provisions. And by the looks of it, I was right.”
“Joe is down to his final bottle of gin,” Ned says bluntly, “So you wouldn’t have wanted to be any later.”
“Never you mind Neddie, I know you keep a couple of bottles of brandy under your bunk.” Joe retorts with a wink.
Dan lifts the muslin wrapping from the scones and tears one in half.
“The scones are from Kate.” Tom nods.
“Ah, darling Kate.” Dan sighs, his eyes glazed.
Removing his pocket knife, Joe punctures the blade into the tin of preserved tongues.
“I thought you’d want to be doing some cooking yourself, Joe?” Tom jokes from the fireside.
“Cooking is a woman’s job.” Joe answers frankly, his eyes not lifting from the tin.
“Or in our case, Steve’s.” Dan interjects, his mouth full of scone.
Tom looks around the squalid hut, “Where is Steve anyhow?”
“He headed home a couple of days ago.” Dan replies, his long fingers pulling apart another scone. “He didn’t take kindly to the way Ned spoke to him.”
“Oh, I see.” He replies.
Having succeeded in opening the tin, Joe peels back the jagged lid with his thumb. Grabbing a fork, he sits in front of the fire and digs out a jellied tongue, appeasing the hunger that resides within his numbed belly…
Tom Lloyd’s voice echoes around the hut as long streaks of shadow begin to paint the walls. “Sherritt is no good Ned; I hear it everywhere I go. He is so close to Hare, he’s near shackled to him. He’s a like a horse that’s gone bad, and what do you do with one of those? You shoot it, Ned.”
Joe tightens his grip on the gin bottle and swigs it roughly, the glass clashing against his teeth.
“Something must be done about him Ned.” Tom persists.
“What would you know, Lloyd?” Joe mumbles, his eyes fixed on a moth that flutters in front of the hearth.
“I know enough Joe.” Tom responds from behind him.
“Aye…” Joe slurs, taking another swig, “I’m sure you do…”
“I make it my business to know.” Tom answers, “For the safety of Ned and Dan. Someone has to be a wake up to the goings on of Sherritt and his brother.”
He turns on the stool and looks at Tom, his eyes bloodshot, “Ever since we were stealing and dealing horses, Ned and Aaron have been in awe of each other. What would lead you, or any other bloody cove, to believe that he would betray us?”
Tom stands from the makeshift table, swallowing the remnants of brandy in his glass. “His continued dealings with the traps, and not only that, but I also hear that he is still being paid by them? Isn’t that evidence enough?”
“Tom is right Joe.” Dan begins, pouring a tea stained pannikin full of brandy, “He shouldn’t be so easily trusted. Now that he’s getting paid for the information he gives, it don’t mean nothing that you’re his mate.”
Joe curls his lip, “He’s being paid for our benefit, he is keeping the bastards off our tracks.”
“Ah.” Tom nods sarcastically, “And a mighty job he’s doing of it too.”
Joe’s gaze hardens, “What do you mean by that?”
Tom drags a hand through his dark beard, his eyes fixed on the beams above. “I heard that he surprised you one night, after visiting Kate.”
Joe smiles wryly and looks at Ned, “That was Hart’s doing, the bugger was supposed to get word to Aaron about where we’d be.”
Ned clears his throat, “I cannot believe that Aaron is betraying us Tom.” He says finally.
“But Ned…” Dan insists, knocking the pannikin against the table, splashes of brandy staining his breeches.
Ned holds up his hand. “Quiet Danny. If Aaron is selling us out, let him show us he is himself. If not, then we wait.”
“Well, how do we do that?” Dan queries, flicking a scattering of scone crumbs out of his wispy moustache.
“I want to ask him to join us.” Joe begins quietly, “I want to see if he is as loyal to me, as I am to him.”
“You plan to do what Joe?” Tom asks, his mouth thin.
“I want Aaron to join us.” Joe repeats, “I want to get him away from those Sherritt’s and their venom. I am all he has left.”
Tom’s eyes widen in response to Joe’s words, “The mongrel should not be trusted Ned!”
“That’s quite enough Tom.” Ned orders. “We need a good man with us, and I trust Aaron, as does Joe. Lord knows what lies ahead, but at least for now Thomas, let’s offer him this chance.”
Tom holds his head in his hands, “Sherritt will be the death of you and Danny, you know that don’t you?”
Candles flicker on the centre of the table as Joe sits, hunched, his mind burdened with swirling questions of Aaron’s loyalty.
Unable to cope with the thoughts, Joe thrusts a hand into the pocket of his overcoat and removes several sheets of blue lined paper, which Aaron had taken from his mother and given to him. Taking a deep swig of gin, Joe dips the nib into the inkwell, and places it, as lightly as he can, onto the paper, the pen shaking in his hand…
June 26 1879
Dear Aaron I write these few stolen lines to you to let you know that I am still living I am not the least afraid of capture…Joe closes his eyes as the thought of capture consumes him, quivering slightly as he envisages the feeling of rope around his neck…
Dear Aaron meet me you and Jack this side of Puzzle ranges Neddy and I has come to the conclusion to get you to join us I was advised to turn tr…
Joe pauses and sounds the word out aloud “trea-ter”, but I said that I would die at Ned’s side first Dear Aaron it is best for you to join us Aaron a short live and a jolly one the Lloyd’s and Quinn’s wants you shot…Joe’s eyes flick up at Tom as he shuffles a deck of cards and deals them out to himself, Ned and Dan, but I say no you are on our side If it is nothing for the sake of your mother and sisters…
Joe narrows his eyes, trying to concentrate on his writing. His usual neat copperplate reduced to a slow, firmly pressed, scrawl…We sent that bloody Hart to your place twice did my mother tell you the message that I left for you I slept at home three days on the 24th of may…The painful memories of opium withdrawals flicker to the surface of Joe’s mind, the secrecy in which he had been taken home for fear that he might die…
Did Patsy give you the booty I left for you I intend to pay old Sandy Doig and Old Mullane…Joe’s thoughts drift to the Constable’s smirking face…Oh that bloody snob where is he I will make a targate of him meet me next thursday you and Jack and we will have another bank quite handy I told Hart to call last thursday evening I would like to know if he obeyed us or not if not we will shoot him if you come on our tracks; close your puss…Joe smiles at the pun, you know you were at Citties…He pauses, and looks hard at the spelling, his brain muddled with gin, crossing it out, he continues…Kates several times you had just gone one night as we came we followed you four miles but returned without success If you do not meet me where I ask you meet me under london you know I will riddle that bloody Mullane if I catch him no more from the enforced outlaw till I see yourself
I remain yours truly
Trailing off with his pen, Joe allows it to fall onto the table, where it rolls noisily along the bowed wood. “Why can’t it be like old times?” He murmurs, his eyes staring blankly at the paper in front of him…