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 calico above him. From behind the partition, eight year old Mary snuffles and coughs. The rattle of the bedframe sounds 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 sits up and buttons his undershirt, “Just wait a minute while I get my shirt on.” Swinging his tweed clad legs out from under the covers, Joe retrieves his shirt from the iron bedpost and hastily pulls it over his head.
The full moon shines, luminously, through the drifting veil of cloud, as Joe and Ned ride along the sandy bank of Billabong Creek, the soft plod of hooves resounding from the summer cracked earth. Joe clasps his fingers around the buttons of his tweed jacket, the February heat pressing, mercilessly, against him. “Eff this heat!” Joe hisses, tearing the buttons open. “It’s been dark for the last hour and it’s still bloody stifling.” “Aye, it’s not pleasant weather for riding in.” Ned sighs, taking a swig from his flask before nodding to Joe. “Care for a drop?” Joe eyes the flask in Ned’s hand, moonlight glinting from its pewter cap. “What’s in it?” “Some of Steve’s brandy.” Ned replies, passing the leather bound flask to Joe. Unscrewing the cap, Joe lifts it to his lips and takes a mouthful of the liquor, scrunching his face at its sourness. “Liquid mullock is all that is.” Joe spits, wiping his sleeve across the brandy resin that clings to his strawberry blonde moustache. “You been smoking too much of that brown stuff?” Ned laughs, edging his black mare into a trot. “The taste ain’t that bad.” Joe glowers at his mate and clicks his tongue, rising out of the saddle as Music springs into a trot.
The autumn wind tugs at Joe’s tweed jacket as he stands on the ledge of rock, gazing down over the sprawling plain below, his fingers furling and unfurling around the Tranter revolver clasped in his hand. Joe paces along the rocky expanse, his eyes scanning across the yellow paddocks and distant homesteads. The unfinished letter to Aaron rustles, noisily, in his breast pocket, a weighty reminder of what he cannot ignore. Removing the paper, Joe unfolds it, his eyes drifting over the red inked copperplate, ‘Moses the game is surely up. You think yourself very brave for all your blowing about what you will do to me. This is only foolishness on your part. For you, Ward, and Mullane are now wanted men…’ Joe’s knuckles whiten as he holds the letter in his hands, which quiver with the anger of a friendship long since betrayed…
Joe tucks his fingers under the pommel of the saddle, the reins resting freely on Music’s neck, as she picks her way through the collection of saplings that dot the gap. Her large dappled ears flick, backwards and forwards, as Joe whistles the rebellious tune, The Wearing of the Green. As he edges Music along the pebbled bank of Reedy Creek, the excited shouts of Chinese miners resound, as horse and rider near the town of Sebastopol. Nearing the Chinese huts, the sweet aroma of rice greets him, as it wafts from one of the huts open windows. Like his fondness for the bliss of opium, rice had also become his weakness. Margret frowned on Joe’s taste for the sticky white grains. When he’d returned home, one afternoon, with a china bowl and a set of chopsticks she had been appalled. “You’ll turn into one of those yellow fellows if you keep eating like them”, she berated. Joe laughs at the memory, as his vision catches on several Chinese miners who splash in the creek, washing their hands in the tawny water.
Music whinnies as Joe approaches the police paddock, where she has been tethered since his arrival to the courthouse yesterday morning. A trooper sits beside the post and rail yards, his helmet low over his eyes, cutting the glare from the afternoon sun. He looks up as Joe nears, scrunching the Ovens and Murray Advertiser under his arm and rises from the wooden crate. “It’s the big grey isn’t it?” The policeman nods towards Music, “And your flash young mate has the chestnut, if I recall?” “Aye” Joe responds, “but just bring out the grey, my mate will be out soon to collect his mare.” Waiting as the trooper removes the top rail, Joe’s eyes flick toward the holding cell, where he had met that young fellow with the bright smile and raggedy clothing. He turns his head back to the horse yards, as Music is led out, her shoes clipping the rail as she steps over it. Joe tips his head and takes Music’s reins, as she shakes her bridled head from the flies that buzz around her large black eyes. Joe tightens the girth and lets his stirrups down, the leather snapping against the saddle flaps.
The armour had weighed heavily on Joe's mind, the clouded uncertainty it brought made him feel uneasy. “This bloody armour” Joe had warned, “it'll bring us nothing but grief and nuisance.” Ned's armour had been the forerunner for the other three suits, and the long days of bone jarring work that followed, had left Joe deep with bitterness and aching limbs. He had sworn that if he was going to be made, make, and wear, this “God forsaken thing”, then it'd be undertaken properly. For this, Joe had entrusted blacksmith Tom Straughair, who was a close friend of both he and Patsy, to construct his suit and had guided Tom, meticulously, on its design. After watching Dan struggle into the saddle while wearing his apron plate, Joe had instructed Tom to shape his so it slanted slightly. However, this chiselled slant did nothing to aid in his mounting, and instead, Music had become flighty at the resounding scrape of iron, as the armoured weight constricted his movement into the saddle. To counter this, Joe had Tom place two bolts, where a leather cord could be wound around the bolts, and, through the slits in the apron, for easier detachment. The helmet had also been an issue, as it cut, uncomfortably, into his shoulders. In angry haste, Joe had removed it, and flared the bottom of it with a hammer, so it would rest softer on his shoulders. For Ned's suit, shin plates had been constructed, but given their weight, they kept sliding down his legs. This left both Joe and Dan smirking, “Ned ain’t as clever as he thinks” Dan had whispered....
The dull rattle of chains catch on the spring breeze, as the hobbled horses pick at what grass they can find amongst the formation of rock that lines the ridge. Joe rests his back against the trunk of a gumtree, sucking on his pipe. He lets the sweet tobacco fill his mouth, before exhaling, his eyes following the curls of smoke as they drift upwards. Joe looks over to Dan and Steve, who doze next to him, their heads resting on rolled up oilskins, catching what sleep they can.
Joe tugs, playfully, at the drawstring of Maggie’s apron as she tends to the fire, rekindling the flames, which crackle and flicker, with an armful of dry twigs. Maggie straightens, brushing away the woodlice which cling to the grey sleeves of her dress, and turns toward him. Her blue eyes flash in the firelight, “you are a devil, aren’t you Mr Byrne?” “Aye”, Joe replies with a wink, pulling her onto his lap, “not even six months in her majesty’s prison could flog the devil out of me.”
The November rain falls about Joe in heavy sheets as he leans his frame against the wooden door of home. Overhead, streaks of lightning illuminate the dark Woolshed sky, followed by sharp cracks of thunder which resound through the gully. Joe shudders at its severity, which rings in his ears like the cat o’ nine tails, as visions of Beechworth gaol flash, uneasily, in his mind. Joe shakes from the brutality that grips him, and knocks a fist, which is cut and calloused from the prison sentence he had just served, against the breadth of door.
The chill of night bites against Joe’s limbs as he lies on the rough bunk, yearning for sleep that does not come. The wood creaks nosily beneath his restless frame as he tries to find warmth under the green woollen blanket that covers him. On the makeshift bed next to him, Dan curses and sits up. Milky streaks of moonlight seep through the chinks of the hut’s timbered walls, illuminating his weary countenance. “You’ll wake Hare with all your bloody noise”, Dan whispers sharply. “I can’t sleep.” Joe sighs, “I’m near freezing.”