The Cow from El Dorado

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 sheet of calico above him.

From behind the partition, Mary snuffles and coughs. The rattle of the bedframe sounding 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 stretches and sits up, “Just wait a minute while I get my shirt on,” he answers, his fingers working numbly on the buttons of his undershirt.

Retrieving his shirt from the iron bedpost, he hastily pulls it over his head.

“Alright Mary, you can come in now.” Joe affirms, swinging his tweed clad legs out from under the woollen blankets.

He reaches down for his bluchers as 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, disappearing back through the curtain.

***

From the small copper basin, Joe soaks a wash cloth in the water, and looks into the small mirror at his sleep lined reflection. Wringing the excess water, he drags the cloth across his face and neck.

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 pot of 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, “I was sure you would have already ridden up to Sherritt’s.”

She places the bowl in front of five year old Elly, who stretches her arm across the table, “Spoon, spoon.” She gabbles.

Joe slides the utensil across 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, “Patrick is always a great help to me.”

“You know I would help you more if I could.” Joe says quietly, his mind heavy with guilt.

Margret loosens the drawstring of her apron and removes it from her waist.

 “I find that difficult to believe.” She sighs, folding the grey piece of fabric firmly in her hands.

“Aaron has no one else to help him fence his selection.” Joe begins, “And if he doesn’t keep up with the improvements he’ll lose it.”

Margret takes a spoon from the center of the table and plants it in the mush of oats in front of him, “What about my selection Joseph?”

Joe averts from her gaze and remains silent.

Margret shakes her head and turns away from him, “I suppose I shouldn’t expect any less, 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 dripping 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 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.”

“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 the El Dorado 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 across the flat as she runs behind the stable.

Margret’s voice cuts through the valley, as she calls sharply from the clothesline, “Dennis Byrne! Stop tormenting your sister!”

Aaron raises his eyebrows and stifles a laugh. “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 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, they 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.

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“What about the brand?” Joe asks, nodding toward the RM that is burnt into her hide.

Aaron shrugs unconcerned, “We’ll cut it out.”

“Cut it out?” Joe repeats.

“You gone simple all of a sudden?” Aaron asks, “We’ll have a bloody knife with us when we are up at the yards.”

 “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, to keep her moving” He instructs, tugging on the rope to bring the beast closer to his mare, who snorts, nervously, at the heifers 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, who 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 beasts 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, leveling 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.

Joe collects the second knife from the ground and looks down toward the clearing, a redheaded figure catching his attention as the stocky man stumbles up the track.

Feeling his heart sink, Joe straightens and clutches Aaron’s shoulder. “Effing Sandy Doig is coming up the hill!”

Aaron lifts his head, beads of sweat roll 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 uncertainty.

“Do ye call yourself a butcher son?”

Aaron rubs the sweat away with the back of his bloodied hand, a smearing of it staining his temple.

“What is it you’re after, Doig?” He mutters.

Sandy steps forward and glances at the carcass. “Are you in the butchering trade now, Sherritt?”

Joe looks to Aaron, watching as he skins down the beast’s lower jaw and cuts out the tongue.

“Aye.” He growls, brandishing the pink muscle in his right hand.

Sandy’s eyes widen at the motion and he retreats back away from the yard, nearly tripping over a rocky outcrop in his haste.

 “Foolish old bugger.” Aaron sniggers, throwing the tongue into a wooden bucket.

Joe watches as the Scotsman disappears down into the line of pine trees

“You got that knife sharp yet?” Aaron asks, holding out his bloodied hand.

Joe slaps his arm away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing Aaron?”

Aaron’s brow knots in confusion, “Eh?”

Joe grasps the tongue from the bucket and grimaces. “This effing display!”

Aaron’s hazel eyes flick from Joe to the tongue in his hand. “What of it?”

“While you were being so damned foolish did it cross your thick skull that the bastard will probably be itching to bring Kennedy up here?” Joe says exasperatedly.

For a moment Aaron is silent, the self-assured guise replaced with remorse. “I’m only doing this to provide good beef for my parents…” He pauses, “And your Ma, Joe.”

Joe feels his shame rise.

“I haven’t sought out to bring trouble.” Aaron continues. “I simply saw the opportunity in front of me, and couldn’t resist the temptation. Old man Kennedy knows we sometimes use this yard for branding and cutting calves. He’ll take no notice of the chattering bastard.”

Joe nods and throws the tongue back in the bucket. “Let’s just be quick in getting this carcass quartered before we have another visit.”

Running the steel along the edge, Joe sharpens the knife, his blue eyes fixed on the growing shadows that stretch over the gully.

***

The wind battered limbs of Eucalyptus trees resound 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 vividly in 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 heading 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 meddler 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.”

Joe rubs a hand over his aching temples, “Aye…She’ll be thankful.”

***

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 as it scurries around the cluttered space and 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, masked by a drifting cover of cloud, and leans against the slab wall of the shed. He blows out the light from the lamp 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 stuff 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 next door.”

Aaron sits himself down beside Kate, “Well, you’ll be right for the winter with the beef Joe and I brought down for you.”

Placing a washed plate onto the wooden rack, Margret suddenly 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.

“It’s a simple question Joseph, whose is it?” 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.”

Margret turns back to the dishes and begins scrubbing the remainder of the plates, her knuckles growing white under her the pressure of her grasp.

Finishing the final plate, Margret wipes her hands against her apron. “Would you carry the dishwater outside Joseph?”

Joe nods and rises from the table, “Certainly Ma.”

Lifting the copper basin of soapy water, he moves towards the door, while Margret wraps her woollen shawl tightly around her shoulders.

She removes the iron bolt from the door and swings it open, a press of cold air meets him as he steps out into the night.

***

Joe moves out from the veranda and turfs the murky water out onto the grass.

His mother’s voice cuts behind him. “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.

***

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.” He drawls sleepily.

Joe lays himself down and looks up at the murky tin roof, the stout figure of Sandy Doig caught in his mind.

***

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, hitting him in the chest.

“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 speckled fowls scuttling around 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, he walks up behind her, his arms sliding around her synched 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 along the wall of the gully.

“I’ve missed you lass.” Joe murmurs, tucking a stand of dark hair behind her ear.

He grazes his lips over her neck and kisses the milky skin.

“I have missed you too Joe.” She responds, slinking from the tickle of his moustache. “But it’s been difficult these last few months. The hours that I’ve not been working have been spent helping mother around the house.”

“I’m sure your father is grateful for the labour.” Joe mutters, kicking his mare into a more brisk walk.

“It’s called taking responsibility Joe. Something you might consider from time to time.” She responds coldly.

“Ah, I see.” Joe nods, his face hardening.

“Since it’s presumed that we’ll one day marry, it would be a comfort to me if you were employed in some capacity. As honest work as helping my brother fence his selection may be, it is not actually employment.”

“Of course you are correct Bessie. Perhaps I should become a trooper like your old man. Would that win approval?” Joe asks sarcastically.

“If you aren’t going to take me seriously, we might as well ride home.” She fumes.

Joe tightens the reins, “How am I supposed to take you seriously when you talk like my damn mother?”

Bessie twists in the saddle, her lips pursed. “Why? Because I have to remind you to look for employment and act responsible for those around you? And don’t tell me that the odd jobs you are granted in the Chinese camp are anything less than small favours.”

***

Dismounting outside the Sherritt house, Joe watches as Bessie retreats angrily inside, her skirts billowing from behind her.

He resists the urge to chuckle at the spectacle, and begins loosening Music’s girth a couple of notches.

Crossing the stirrups over the saddle, he turns to see John Sherritt standing behind him.

 “Young Byrne, it’s good to see you.” He smiles, clapping a hand on Joe’s shoulder.

 “How have you been Mr Sherritt?” Joe inquires, shaking John’s weathered hand.

 “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.

Rolling up his shirt sleeves, John gestures towards the house. “Annie’s been meaning to visit your mother, but where does time get to eh?”

“Aye.” Joe nods, his eyes catching on eighteen year-old Jack Sherritt as he swaggers towards them, a bright orange sash swinging from his waist.

Joe holds out his hand, “Jack.”

Shaking Joe’s hand, he turns to his father. “What is the story with that meat Aaron’s brought home?”

John’s face hardens. “Meat? What meat Jack?”

Jack places his hat on his head and pulls the leather string under his nose, “He has it inside. He’s boasting about it to Ma and Willie.”

“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.

The small clock on the fireplace is the only sound discernible, as the stooped man inspects the quarter of beef in his son’s possession.

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 at the pair, “Who helped you divide the carcass?”

“I did that myself.”  Aaron replies, meeting his father’s gaze.

John clears his throat, “What brand was the beast carrying, son?”

“My own brand, A and S with a half circle.” Aaron lies calmly.

 “Is all this correct Joseph?” He asks, narrowing his eyes.

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, the boy’s 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 was, I was just…”

“Just get it out of here, boy.” He mutters.

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.

***

Arriving at Aaron’s selection, they unsaddle their mares and turn them loose in the partially cleared paddock.

Joe rests his saddle on the post and rail fence and gazes down toward the scraggly heard of goats that pick at the tangle of blackberry bushes.

From the hut, the clanging of tools echo as Aaron upturns the old potato box and places it under the bark overhang of his roof. Stepping on the box, he reaches around the jokey polls, tying the remaining strips to them.

Moving toward the wood pile, Joe collects an armful of the split timber and carries it toward the hut.

“Get the fire lit would you.” Aaron grunts, tucking the ends of hide through the panels of bark.

Joe kicks the box, sending Aaron wobbling unsteadily and gripping the roof for support.

“What was that for?” He curses, jumping from the box.

Feigning ignorance, Joe shoves open the door.

Stacking the logs in the large stone hearth, he strikes a match and nestles it in between the kindling.

“I told you all would be well.” Aaron says behind him, swigging a bottle of brandy thirstily.

Joe straightens and throws his hat down on the bunk, raking a hand through the tangles in his auburn hair. “I don’t know how you can be so sure of that.”

He stares out the grubby window to a group of squawking black cockatoos as they land amongst the branches of a pine tree. “You know as well as I do that Sandy will have gone into Beechworth.”

Aaron wipes his sleeve across his mouth, “What would that old Scotsman say?”

 “He effing saw us you idjit!” Joe retorts.

“I still don’t see what you’re worrying yourself about. He saw me cutting the bloody tongue out, he never saw me remove no brands. Like I said before, Kennedy knows we’ve used his stockyard before.”

Joe feels his anger pulsing through him in bursts.

“I need a smoke.” He growls, reaching under the bunk for his opium pipe.

Lighting the spirit lamp, Joe takes a sticky bud of opium tar and holds it over the flame, turning it until it glows. He pushes the bud through the bowl of the pipe and positions himself on the floor. He sucks deeply on the pipe, tipping his head back as he exhales.

“I had nothing but good intentions Joe.” Aaron sighs finally, scratching his boot in the dirt floor.

Joe looks across at Aaron through the haze of opium smoke. “Aye, I know.”

***

With aching limbs, Joe rises from the earth floor and moves toward the small window. Rubbing away the condensation, he gazes out at the horses, his eyes falling on Music and Chloe as they canter along the fence line.

Wary of what could be spooking the horses, Joe crosses to the opposite window and narrowly looks out, shocked at the two figures who greet him.

“Aaron!” He hisses in his mate’s ear.  “Aaron you bugger, wake up!”

Aaron groans and goes to turn over but Joe clutches his shoulder. “Effing Mullane and Ward are outside!”

Aaron’s eyes shoot open. “Here? Now?”

Suddenly the wooden door clatters on its hinges as the pummeling of fists are brought against it. “You in there, open up at once!”

Aaron jumps to his feet and opens the door a crack, but Constable Patrick Mullane forces it open, the door scraping over Aaron’s boots, sending him reeling at the pain inflicted on his toes.

Joe stands motionless as the fair haired Constable enters the hut, his hooked nose scrunched at the musty smell of opium that greets him.

Looking past him, Joe eyes Mounted Constable Michael Ward, his polished boots glint in the sunlight as he walks toward the hut.

Mullane scornfully scans the sparsely furnished room and reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket, removing two warrants.

He shoves them toward the pair, “We wish to ask you a number of questions regarding the meat we have uncovered.”

At that moment Ward moves past the Constable, his eyes widening as he notices Joe’s opium pipe lying on the floor. He looks at Joe, his top lip curling upwards under his wax stiffened moustache.

“So,” Mullane begins, “What can you tell us about the meat uncovered at each of your parent’s selections?”

Joe avoids the glare of the constable’s deep set eyes, but Aaron straightens and clears his throat.

“It is my own. It was a beast from Barambogie that knocked up coming home, and I put it in Kennedy’s yard and killed it.”

With a gloved hand, Ward removes his notebook and pencil, opening to a fresh page.

“What brand was the beast carrying?” He asks, tapping the led tip on the paper.

“My own, sir. A off rump, with an S and half circle on the off-side.” Aaron answers.

The Mounted Constable nods and hastily scrawls the reply.

 “And what can you tell me about the marks in the beast’s ear?”

 “She was earmarked with two holes punched in one ear.” Aaron recounts.

Ward’s lips twitch, “Do you have any other cattle that are earmarked in this way also?”

Aaron shakes his head reluctantly, “No, I do not.”

Mullane scoffs and gazes up at the cobwebbed roof.

Ward shoots him a sidelong glance and continues his questioning.

“The Constable and myself located several pieces of hide at your father’s place, do you have the remainder?”

“I sold half the hide to Joseph for 8s.”

“Have you any portion of the other half?”

“I have it sliced and tied to the bark outside.” Aaron asserts.

Ward flicks his hand toward the door, “Fetch them off.”

Aaron steps out of the hut, while Ward watches closely from the doorway.

During the absence of his mate, Constable Mullane keeps his eyes trained on Joe, half smirking at the nineteen year-olds nervous hesitation.

Re-entering the hut with the strips of hide, Aaron hands them to Ward.

He runs his gloved fingers over the pieces. “We will need you both to come with us down to your parent’s selection, Sherritt.”

The pair are marched out of the hut, and directed onto a spring cart, the axel squeaking as they climb aboard.

***

Pulling up outside the Sherritt house, they are led off and into the kitchen, where strips of the hide await them on the table.

Ward pieces them together, like pieces of a jigsaw and twirls his mustache.

“Point out the brands.” He instructs, turning to Aaron.

“That’s your business.” Aaron disputes.

Mullane smacks his fist on the table, “No, it is your business! You must show us where the brands are and how you came to possess the meat. Or we must take you away directly.”

Aaron shrugs undaunted, “If the hide was shaved, I might show you the brands.”

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The two men turn away, their voices hushed as they converse what they have been told.

 “Were you with Sherritt on Saturday?” Ward asks, looking squarely at Joe.

“Yes.” Joe nods nervously.

“What time did you go to Barambogie for the beast?” He asks.

“After dinner.” Joe replies vaguely.

The Mounted Constable shakes his head, “No, that will not do. We are after the precise time.”

Joe feels himself trembling under the uniformed gaze.

“About two o’clock.”

Mullane attempts to direct a question, but Ward cuts him off with a movement of his hand.

“Precisely what time was it when you went to Mrs Batchelor’s for the knife and steel?”

Joe doesn’t answer, he knows that Barambogie is roughly eight miles away, the trip there and back would have taken him and Aaron more than three hours, making it impossible for him to have called at Mrs Batchelor’s at four thirty in the afternoon.

“Are you aware that Richard Maddern, herdsman of the Eldorado Common School, has recently reported his white heifer missing? Apparently a large part of the brush fencing had been kicked down, with two pairs of boot marks found around the entrance to the gate.” Ward pauses and looks down at Joe’s bluchers. “Do you have anything further to say on the matter Byrne?”

Joe swallows the lump in his throat and shakes his head.

“Anything more from you, Sherritt?” Mullane interjects.

Aaron glares at the Constable and straightens his six foot frame. “I’ve nothing more to say to the likes of you.”

Mullane’s broad lips turn upward, “Then I must place you both under arrest on the charge of cattle stealing, to be heard later this afternoon in Beechworth.”

Joe feels his heart sink. He had been arrested on minor charges before, but none so serious as this. With no way of proving anything beside their guilt, Joe knew that both he and Aaron were liable to six months imprisonment with hard labour.

Reefing Joe’s hands behind his back, Mullane clamps the handcuffs on his wrists, while Ward does the same to Aaron.

The boys are led out of the house and forced back onto the cart for the journey down to Beechworth.

As the cart lurches forward, Joe glances over his shoulder. His eyes meeting Bessie’s as she stands under the veranda, flickers of his mother’s face casting shadows over her own.

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