It takes a certain type of friendship to share a woman turnabout. A barmaid named Maggie who Joe was slipping out at night to see also caught Aaron out.
Sometimes Ned wonders if he'd have bothered with Mrs C (Call me Julia, she'd said, and he'd smiled and kissed her and fumbled for her stays with heated hands) if his friends hadn't always been (pardon the pun, your honour) thick as thieves. Aaron and Joe, it became the stock joke between them that if Joe had lost seven or eight years off his ripe age of 21 and looked better in a dress then Aaron would have been on him like flies on a cut horse. Ned had seen the way those two looked at Maggie, who was sweet enough but not anything they didn't find a dozen other places, and the way that Aaron always seemed hungrier for the girl when she still had the smell of Joe about her.
That mouth-breather Dan, dribbling in his sleep, looks thirteen or less, and his downy cheek when he wakes - from lying on his saddlebad - stays tattooed with his pillow's stitching well into the afternoon. Steve, fluffier-faced, a few orange bristles on his chin, snores softly with one eye eerily half open, a wary cub, a jacket of his father's wound around him as a comfort. Soon these two'll be cackling around the fire, elbowing each other, punching arms, pinching food, preparing for another day of continuous eating, whistling, spitting, smoking, competing with their guns and farts and dicks - and occasionally, suddenly, remembering to be serious and responsible outlaws.
Dan's only had three months in gaol, for wilful damage back in '77, he's an innocent by all relative standards, and Ned's protective of the boy in a way almost more tender than he treats his clever, sharp-eyed sisters. Dan, Ned likes to think, is the kid he himself could have been if things were different. Six years younger and look at him here, pressed against a gum so hard the back of his neck is creeping to white from the pressure.
Steve's the one doing the pressing, and the pair of them look like they're attempting to climb right inside each other. It's their age, mostly, Ned remembers what it was to be that young and hungry for it all the time. And it's many a lad he's known who spent those wild-oat years in the clink, himself among that number. And when there's no girls to charm onto their backs, well, the lads make do with their prettier friends, don't they? If you don't clean a gun and look after it, you can't depend on it when you need it to work right.
And so Steve and Dan aren't in the gaol, and there's many a giggling squatter's daughter and scullery maid who would push their drawers down for them if given the chance, but Ned understands why the boys don't go looking past each other. It's something to do with who understands what it's like to have a king's ransom on your skull. It's something to do with the familiarity of a body (and Christ, that makes him think of Mrs C again, whose body he knew by heart the first time he traced it with his eyes). And it's something, Ned reckons, to do with the fact that no soft little bush debutante would be able to pin Dan Kelly up against a gum tree and kiss him until his knees buckle like Steve can.