The Haystack

Hobbling Music in the thick scrub of the gully, Joe begins untying the rope that secures the rolled up overcoat to the pommel of the saddle and unfurls it, revealing the shotgun that has been hidden within the fabric.
The bitting chill of winter sends a shiver from his lips and he wraps the coat around himself, turning up the collar to hide the bushy beard that frames his face.
Slinging the weapon across his shoulder, Joe unbuckles the girth and removes the saddle from Music’s back, resting it against the rotted stump of a pine tree. He strokes his hand along the glistening mark at her side, causing her to twitch and flatten her ears in response.
Aware of what has made the bloody wound, Joe lifts his leg behind himself and rubs a finger against the pointed tip of his spur, the iron smeared with blood. He shakes his head and removes her bridle, the tom thumb bit falling from her mouth with a clatter.
Music grinds her teeth and rubs her forehead against his shoulder, leaving a speckled patch of white on his woollen overcoat.
“Enough of that,” Joe says, pushing her head away.
Laying the bridle on the stump, he begins his descent down to the flat of Sebastopol in search of rest.

***

Walking along the boundary of Murphy’s paddock, Joe spots the formation of haystacks in the dusk light and climbs the post and rail fence, cocking his head to listen for the tell tale sign of life before walking out into the open. The haystack chosen as his cradle is close to the boundary of concealed bush, allowing for a safe retreat should the need arise.
The hay rustles beneath his fingers as he parts it and lies himself down amongst it, the dusty bed of dried grass a welcome relief for his weary limbs.
Removing his flask, he takes a mouthful of Paddy Allen’s finest whiskey and lets it slowly trail down his throat, his eyes drifting to the patchwork of stars that twinkle above him.
When life had been simpler, he and Ellen Salisbury would often sit together under the veranda of her father’s house and gaze up at the night sky. She often told him that stars were the windows of heaven, where the departed could look down upon their loved ones. Having lost her own Mother at the age of nine, this belief comforted Ellen and Joe had known better than to question it. Now, however, as an outlaw worth £2000 to any cove brave enough to try his luck, it made him uneasy to think of what his father would make of his life.
Filling his mouth with whiskey, Joe throws the flask beside him and closes his eyes against the stars.

***

The sudden screech of a plover startles Joe awake and he cocks the hammer of his shotgun and rises his head above the hay. With the shotgun levelled at his shoulder, he scans the paddock for shadows, his eyes catching on the figure of a cat as it scurries from one of haystacks, causing the plover to screech and swoop at the predator.
Uncocking the gun, Joe grasps a hand across his coat in an attempt to quell the pounding of his chest and falls back in the hay.

***

While the sun begins its rise above the valley, Joe lies in a peaceful slumber, his snores muffled by the hay that is heaped around him. With each intake of air, his lip twitches beneath his auburn moustache as the pointed blades waver against his face. A crisp layer of frost covers his boots and trousers, making his lower body indistinguishable from the whitened landscape around him.

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For the outlaw, this is the first proper sleep he has been granted in many weeks and despite the blanket of ice that dampens his limbs, Joe is determined to relish this much sought luxury for as long as he is able.
A scarlet robin that has been perched on the post and rail fence with its mate, flies toward the haystack and lands close to Joe’s boots, filling its beak with the grass seed that has been disturbed from the heap.
Joe rolls onto his side and groans as the whiskey flask digs uncomfortably into his shoulder. Opening his eyes to the building light, he stretches and sits up, his gaze following the robin as it flutters back towards the bush. He rakes a hand through his beard and reaches for the flask, his throat coated with a dry layer of dust.
He swigs the whiskey and sits in silence, watching while shafts of sunlight filter through the trees of the gully, bringing forth another day of an outlawed life.

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