You think yourself to be very high and mighty for the work you are doing in hunting for the Kelly Gang. But I must inform you that your days are truly numbered unless you stop bothering yourself about Beechworth and the surrounding districts. The Kellys are informed of your every move and you cannot visit Sebastopol without someone watching. You are a brave cove, I’ll grant you that, for it is only foolishness to believe your life will continue to be spared. The great boasting you have done at the Hibernian Hotel about being the only cove to ever gaol Joe Byrne has made it to the ears of the outlaws and as you can well imagine, they are itching to get their hands on you. I must warn you Detective, you and your great chum Mullane are now wanted men. A reward of £8000 has been issued for your apprehension and delivery up into the ranges. I trust you fully consider the peril you gentlemen now find yourselves in.
There is great mischief to come, so prepare yourself for your latter end.
The letter completed, Joe flicks his eyes over the whiskey scrawled copperplate and folds the blue-lined paper in half, sliding it into the awaiting envelope.
“That a new letter for Ward?” Dan asks from across the makeshift table.
Joe scrawls the name of Michael Edward Ward on the envelope and places it in the pocket of his overcoat, along with the caricatures.
“Aye, I’ll be taking it down to Jack tomorrow.”
Dan shakes his head and shuffles the playing cards in his hands, “I’m surprised you still trust that bloody Sherritt; even Aaron’s weary of him.”
Rubbing at his pounding temples, Joe shrugs him off, “I know what I’m doing, Danny.”
“I hope you do,” the eighteen year-old sighs.
Joe mutters and clutches at his head in a vain attempt to relieve the uncontrollable withdrawal symptoms that gnaw within him and looks across at his opium pipe, lying beneath the bunk. Since his share of the money from Jerilderie had depleted, so too had the hospitality of the Chinese, whose opium dens in Sebastopol he frequently visited. On a visit to one such den, owned by Ah Lim, Joe had been told he was no longer welcome unless he paid upfront, owing to the promises he had made regarding payment previously. “No yapian, Ah Joe.” The Chinaman asserted, brandishing his dragon staff at the outlaw, “Yapian only if pay money first.”
Joe ruffles a hand through his swag, searching for the bottle of laudanum, the only thing available to appease the pain.
Wrapping his fingers around the glass he pulls it out and holds it up to the dusty stream of sunlight that shines through the chinks in the wall.
His eyes narrow at the emptiness.
“Which of you buggers had the last few drops of my laudanum?”
Dan raises his head above the cards, “Eh?”
“My damn laudanum,” Joe says through gritted teeth.
Steve and Dan exchange worried glances.
Joe hurls the bottle against the brandy case, splinters of glass ricochet off the wooden box. He stands unsteadily, his eyes watery and bloodshot.
“Who drank my fucking laudanum?” Joe spits.
Steve shrugs nervously and deals a card to Dan.
“It’s a simple question Hart. Who drank my bloody laudanum?” He repeats, bringing his colourless face close to Steve’s.
“I don’t know, Joe,” Steve says hesitantly, “I was scouting with Tom Lloyd yesterday.”
Feeling himself lose control, Joe brings his fist down upon the length of board and grabs the trembling man’s lapel, but Dan shoves him away and jumps to his feet.
“No one drank it on you, Joe!” He shouts, hitting Joe hard in the shoulder. “You offered the stuff to Ned for his back just yesterday.”
Joe rakes a hand through his hair as his mind begins to race in a blur of jumbled thoughts.
“When did I do that?”
Dan frowns, his blue eyes wild with concern.
Joe’s fists curl at his sides.
“If you’re lying, Danny…”
“Go and lie down, you drunk bugger,” Dan orders, gesturing to one of the bunks topped with sacking, “You’re as sick as a dog.”
Feeling himself sway unsteadily on his feet, Joe clutches the whiskey bottle from the table and swigs the remnants.
The bottle emptied, he tosses it into the corner and falls onto the hay stuffed sack, while Dan and Steve watch on, their faces clouded with panic.
In a mess of quivering limbs, Joe curls into the fetal position and closes his eyes against the sting of tears.
In his dream, Maggie lies beside him on the floor of her quarters at the Vine Hotel, her legs entwined around his. A haze of opium smoke fills the room as Joe exhales the sweet vapor, his fingers tracing along her exposed shoulders and down to her breast. Maggie wriggles free from his embrace and looks up at him, a wide smile spread across her face. Taking the pipe from him, she sucks on the mouthpiece and throws her head back, giggling at the plume of smoke that rises from her lips … Suddenly, a pair of gloved hands roughly grab him and tear him away from her, the voice of Ward laughing loudly in his ears. Maggie claws at the Detective’s face but is shoved violently against the wall, a crimson stream flowing from her nose. Joe roars in anger and tries to free himself but a handkerchief is plastered over his mouth, smothering his cries. Several more hands drag him outside and throw him face down into the mud. A length of rope is produced and Ward wraps it around Joe’s neck, his grasp becoming tighter and tighter.
Bolting upright, Joe gasps for air, choking on the dry mass that has built in his throat.
In desperation, he rubs at his eyes, his blurred vision settling on the figure of Ned, standing with his back turned toward the hearth, puffs of smoke issuing from the pipe he has clenched between his teeth.
Reaching down for the billy, Ned lifts it from the coals and pours a pannikin full of boiling tea.
“Dan said you haven’t been yourself,” he begins, passing his mate the tinplate drinking vessel.
Joe shakily takes it from him but remains silent.
“We’ve got to have you keeping your head,” Ned continues, his heavy brow furrowed. “You’re no good to the boys, or yourself, in that state.”
Averting from Ned’s gaze, Joe wraps his fingers around the whiskey bottle that lies under the bunk, and removes the cork, pouring the amber liquor into the tea.
He sips on it, the steam dampening his moustache, and stares solemnly at the dirt floor.
“I should apologise to the whippet,” Joe says finally, “Him and Danny didn’t deserve that.”
Ned tosses a small log onto the dwindling fire, bringing it crackling back to life.
“You’ll have to wait till he returns.”
“Returns?” Joe asks, rubbing at the incessant covering of goosebumps on his forearm.
“He and Dan have ridden down to the Hart selection,” Ned responds, sitting on the stump beside the hearth. “I’m not expecting them back until tomorrow morning.”
“I’m certain sure they’d have been glad to see the back of me,” Joe says bleakly.
Ned’s jaw hardens, “You’ve got to give up that opium, Joe,” he sighs, “It’s nothing but poison.”
Joe’s eyes flick toward the roof of the hut, listening to the rain that begins to fall heavily on the tin above.
“It’s no longer up to me,” he answers bluntly, “Like hiding up in these mountains, the choice is no longer mine to make.”
Leaning back in the saddle, Joe guides Dan’s bay mare down the steep embankment, cursing against the sharp abdominal pain that has plagued him since he left the gang’s hideout at Mount Buffalo.
With the Byrne selection coming into view, Joe dismounts and leads the mare around the back of the stable, where Paddy is stooped, busily rasping the front hoof of Denny’s Welsh Cob gelding.
The gelding knickers as Joe approaches and reefs his front leg out from between Paddy’s knees.
“Stand up!” He growls, prodding the gelding in the ribs with the handle.
Paddy goes to pick up the hoof again, but Joe whistles sharply.
“Joey!” Paddy exclaims, running toward his brother. “Didn’t expect to see you for a few more days.”
“I decided to come down early,” Joe says with a snuffle, “Keep the traps on their toes.”
Stepping inside his mothers house, Joe is taken aback at the change that has occurred within the front room since his last visit. White China crockery, adorned with intricately patterned cobalt blue, is arranged neatly on the sideboard, where an old pewter teapot full of blue and white flag irises take pride of place. The old patchwork window hangings now replaced by light-coloured curtains, boarded with lace.
“Look who’s turned up,” Paddy says proudly.
Margret’s deep set eyes flick up from the needle work in her hand, the rocking motion of the chair pausing as her gaze fixes on Joe.
“Ma,” Joe says quietly, removing his hat.
Fourteen year-old Mary who had been lost in her writing, rises from the table and runs towards her brother.
“Joe!” She gasps excitedly, flinging her arms around him.
Picking his sister up, Joe hugs her tightly and spins her around, smiling cheekily as she begins to protest.
Margret stands from the rocking chair and gestures to the wire meat safe.
“Mary, slice your brother some of the roast.”
Joe places Mary back down and takes a seat across from Paddy at the table.
“Young Daniel with you?” Margret asks, taking a chipped plate from the back of the cupboard.
“No,” Joe answers, looking across to Paddy, “but he’ll pay you a visit when he comes to collect his mare.”
“He is such a sweet boy,” Margret begins, her face softening, “You know, he offered to mend the door of the milking shed for me. A job that I couldn’t even get Patrick or Denis to do,” She pauses and places the plate in front of Joe. “Or yourself, if I remember rightly.”
“Give it a rest, Ma,” Paddy mutters in annoyance. “You only asked us the once.”
Glaring at the gall of her son, Margret sits back into the rocking chair with a huff and resumes darning the woolen sock.
The meat sliced, Mary places it on the table, along with a jar of pickles and loaf of bread.
Joe’s gaze falls on the mantle, where an ornate Holy Bible is displayed, strips of fabric hanging over the spine.
Paddy passes him a piece of bread and nods toward the mantle.
“Ma’s changed the place a bit.”
Joe raises his eyebrows in agreement as he spreads pickles over the slice.
“I returned home from New South Wales and could barely recognise the place,” Paddy laughs, turning cheekily to Margret.
Her blue eyes flick across to Joe.
“The money has been greatly needed, Joseph.”
He holds her gaze, wishing it were at least enough to repair the divide that had ever been between them.
Walking along the paper lined hall, Joe passes the doorway of his mother’s room and enters through the curtain that separates the two back bedrooms.
He smiles at the disheveled state of Denny’s bed and reaches into the old chest of draws, taking out a pair of grey strapped trousers and a wrinkled Crimean shirt. Stripping off his grubby assortment of clothing, Joe quickly changes and pours water from the ceramic jug into the shallow wash basin and wrings out the cloth.
Picking up the mirror, he peers at the tired and gaunt reflection before him and sponges the dark circles beneath his eyes, the burden of outlawed life plain for all to see. He combs through the tangles in his strawberry-blonde beard and smooths the wisps in his moustache with dampened fingers.
Sitting on the bed, Joe pulls his boots back on and looks up towards the curtain as Mary pushes her face against the fabric, a scene reminiscent of a far gone time.
“Remember this?” She teases.
“It’s not the same if you’re not wiping your nose all over it,” Joe laughs, pinching her rosy cheeks as he pulls her in for a hug.
As storm clouds brew overhead, Joe begins saddling Paddy’s black mare in preparation for his ride up to Sheepstation Creek.
He had spent the afternoon dozing in the stable, trying to escape the unbearable sickness that clung to him. Margret never approved of Joe sleeping in the house, so Kate and Paddy always ensured there were extra blankets left out in the stable for when he needed rest.
Mounting onto the mare’s back, he curses as the saddle slips to one side. He swings his leg over the pommel and tightens the girth a notch.
“Be a lot bloody simpler on me if you’d swap her for a grey,” Joe mutters, sliding his boot back into the stirrup iron.
“Not many good grey mares around at the moment, brother. But if one comes up for sale I’ll be the first to snatch her,” Paddy replies, securing the saddle bags.
Joe trembles and rubs a hand over his watery eyes.
“I’ve got some laudanum here,” Paddy frowns, gesturing to the square bottle.
“Keep it,” he grumbles, pulling his overcoat tighter around himself. Ned’s demand from earlier running clear in his mind.
Paddy shoots Joe a quizzed look.
“I said keep it”, Joe repeats, agitated.
“How will you cope without it?”
“I’ll fucking manage.”
Paddy shakes his head and thrusts the bottle at Joe, “Just take the bloody laudanum.”
Growing weary of the hounding, Joe attempts to spur the mare into a walk, but Paddy grasps the reins and pushes her backwards.
“Tell me why you won’t take this?” He insists.
Glaring at Paddy, Joe snatches the bottle from his hand and shoves it into his pocket.
Arriving at Sheepstation Creek, Joe hobbles Shadow in the covering of dense scrub and moves further up along the rocky outcrop toward the Sherritt selection.
He walks along the length of post and railing fencing until he spies the man he is after, further up the paddock ploughing.
With narrowed eyes he watches as Jack follows behind the dappled grey Clydesdale, the twist of iron cutting through rain dampened top soil.
Stepping across the furrows, Joe places his fingers around the butt of his Tranter and stands in the middle of the ploughed patch of ground, waiting as Jack doubles back towards him.
“Johnny,” Joe says, extending a hand, as Jack halts the gelding beside him.
Rubbing his muddied palms over his moleskins, he shakes Joe’s hand, his hazel eyes looking over Joe’s haggard and pale appearance.
“You not well, Joe?” Jack asks.
Ignoring the question, Joe pulls back his overcoat and removes a wad of paper.
“I have a few caricatures I have drawn that I need sticking up around Beechworth.”
He passes them to Jack, who fans them in his hands, his eyebrows raising at what is depicted in pen.
Joe’s lip curls at the twenty two year-old’s expression.
“I’d swing easy if I could shoot that bastard Ward and stuff his body in a hollow log,” He snarls.
Fumbling with the graphic depictions, Jack conceals them in the pocket of his coat.
“Reckon you can do that for me, Johnny?” Joe asks.
“Yes, yes of course, Joe,” Jack stammers. “Where do you want them put up?”
Joe’s eyes follow a hawk as it circles the ploughed land.
“Outside the post and telegraph offices,” he begins, looking squarely at Jack. “I’ll be wanting the old bloodhound to see them.”
Jack nods and rubs his nose with the back of his sleeve.
“I have a letter here too,” Joe announces, turning his back against the wind that lashes the paddock. “I’ll be needing it sent to the cove at the earliest opportunity.”
Jack takes the envelope from him apprehensively.
“You’re not to tell who gave you the letter, understand?” Joe says firmly, sliding the Tranter out from his belt.
He cocks the hammer and pokes the barrel into Jack’s chest.
“You know I’ll shoot you if I hear word you have.”
Jack hesitates and throws his hands up.
“You have my word, Joe,” He splutters nervously.
Joe grunts and motions for him to put his hands down.
“Once you’ve done what I have asked, I’ll have some silver left for you in payment.”
He goes to turn away, but remembers the threatening letter he has for Aaron, written for the benefit of Ward and Superintendent Hare.
“Tell your brother to meet me under London Rock next Friday, I have a letter for him.”
Riding up through the scrub, Joe emerges out onto the moonlit curve of Sydney Road. Pulling his hat down low over his eyes, he crouches forward in the saddle, mimicking the riding style of his brother.
Rounding the bend, an old man leading a Scottish Deerhound appears before Joe along the road.
“Good evening, Patrick,” the man acknowledges.
Joe touches his hat briefly but remains quiet, waiting until the man hobbles out of sight before he dismounts and leads Shadow into the scrub beside the Vine Hotel.
Walking up to the door of Maggie’s quarters, Joe mimics the drawl of a magpie and falls back into the shadows, careful of prying eyes.
The rattle of the bolt being drawn sounds as Maggie pulls the door ajar and looks out, yellow light spilling around her.
Joe moves along the slab wall and holds out his hand, “Maggie m’love, it’s me, Joe,” he whispers sharply.
Taking his hand in hers, Maggie eagerly pulls him inside and closes the door. She holds her arms open for him and they embrace tightly, the weeks of separation fading.
He steps back and takes in the sight he has yearned for since their last goodbye, her blue eyes gleaming up at him.
Joe traces his fingers along the curve of her cheek and plucks her rounded chin.
“Ah, Maggie, my darlin’,” He murmurs.
She nuzzles into his chest. “I’ve missed you, Joe,” She whispers.
Removing the pins from her bonnet, he sets it down on the table, her blonde hair falling freely down her shoulders.
“Aye, lass, I’ve missed you too,” Joe replies, his arms encircling her waist as he lowers his head and kisses her tenderly.
Picking up her right arm, he rolls down the fabric that conceals the raised scars on her arm and brushes his lips over them, his brow furrowing in anger as he thinks of the man who had inflicted such violence upon her.
“I’ll sail to Cornwall one day,” Joe vows, kissing her palm, “and when I return, Jim Clarke and all he possesses, will be nothing but ash.”
Maggie silences him with a kiss, her face damp with tears.
He wipes them away and slides his hands over the fabric at her breasts.
“Neddie reckons I should give up the opium,” Joe says abruptly, tucking her hair behind her ears.
He traces his thumb along her brow bone.
“I’ve been thinking long and hard about it, lass.”
Maggie’s eyes grow wide with concern.
“How will you survive without it?”
Joe falls back on the bed with his head in his hands.
“I don’t bloody know.”
Suddenly, Maggie clutches a hand around her belly and doubles over, groaning in pain.
Joe jumps up alarmed, “What’s wrong, my love?”
She straightens and makes a waving motion with her hand.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” she says, holding out her arms. “Come.”
He frowns and notices the pile of torn cloth on the side table.
She blushes and nods.
“Really though,” Maggie protests, “It’s fine. Come.”
Joe takes out the bottle of laudanum and holds it aloft.
Maggie looks at the bottle, unable to read the label, and shakes her head with a wince.
“What is it?”
Freeing the cork, he gestures for her to sit.
“It’ll ease your pain. Kate takes it for her troubles.”
She sits on the edge of the bed and holds out her tongue. Joe tilts her head back and pours a little of the brown liquid into her mouth, wanting desperately to coat his tongue the same.
Maggie’s face creases into a grimace.
“You might have warned me about the taste,” She splutters.
Joe’s lips twitch into a smile, “You’ll thank me in a while.”
Removing her dress and underskirt, she stands before him in her undergarments. Joe rubs a hand over her belly and kisses the fabric of her chemise.
“I have some leftover stew Mrs. Vandenberg gave me,” she says, gesturing to the cast iron pot hanging beside the hearth.
He shakes his head and pulls her onto his lap.
“In a little while lass. I’d rather feed my eyes first.”
She nestles into his shoulder, her mousy blonde curls tickling his cheek.
“I have a collection of newspapers for you. Mrs. Vandenberg has been getting suspicious about me needing them. I told her I was using them to help with my reading.”
Joe sweeps his hand under her chemise, closing his eyes at the feel of her hardening nipple beneath his fingers.
“I thank you my sweetness, but it’s not the newspapers I’ve been yearning,” He murmurs, his mouth caressing her ear as he speaks.
Holding her close, he feels Maggie relax, the relief the drug has brought spreads across her face.
She loosens the neckerchief at his throat and curls her fingers around the ring that is tied at his neck. Bringing it to her lips she kisses it and undoes the buttons of his blue sack coat, pulling it off his shoulders.
Laying her down on the bed, Joe removes his waistcoat and shirt and gazes over her lamplit figure, longing to feel her softness. He tugs his undershirt out from his trousers and pulls it over his head, trying to ignore the unrelenting torment within.
Joe squeezes his eyes shut and thumps at his forehead in agony.
Maggie wraps her fingers around his forearm, in an attempt to soothe him.
“What’s the matter my love?”
He jerks his arm away.
“Leave me for a minute,” He growls, stumbling from the bed.
Joe begins to pace the length of the hut, his face twisted in agitation.
Rising from the bed, Maggie moves towards him but he gestures for her to stay.
“Please Maggie,” He begins shakily, “I’m no good to you like this.”
He crouches on the floor, feeling lost in shame.
Footsteps echo from behind him.
“Joe?” She whispers.
Turning to face her, he eyes the bottle of laudanum in her hand.
Maggie crouches beside him and tilts his head back, just as he had done for her.
“You don’t have do this alone, Joe.”