* * *
“I did not like Aaron he were always whispering in Joe’s ear seeking out Joe’s eye making mention of this place and that time neither one the rest of us could ever know. The minute he come into our camp he took Joe down to the river where the pair of them indulged in the contents of that Chinese box and smoked their pipe and pickled their bodies with celestial taint. When he come back Aaron’s mocking mouth were smiling at us like he knew things he would not tell.”
* * *
Joe followed Aaron down the muddy incline, hands in his pockets, the picture of calm assurance. His eyes, though, tracked the ground in front of him, heeled boots carefully placed so as not to slip on the slime of the yellowy clay.
Aaron too was stepping carefully, though unlike Joe his step was firmer, harsher, and left imprints of his boots that Joe could follow in.
Down at the river various groups of men sat near the water, sifting dirt and muddy water through pans, waiting for the ever elusive specks of gold to surface. Waiting for the ever elusive wealth to brighten their lives. Quiet chattering drifted through the gentle murmur of the water; rough slang, lilting Cantonese, the occasional sharp curse.
Aaron looked back at him over a shoulder, inclined his head to indicate that they should go further, up around the bend of the river. Joe tipped his head in acknowledgment. He would follow.
And he did, hands still in his pockets, eyes now fixed on the ragged cuffs of Aarons trousers, rising and falling over his heels, splattered in the mustard clay and a darker shade of black where the water seeped upwards.
Reaching the next leg of the river they turned inwards, up the bank and into the encroaching bush. Gum trees and sword grasses, leaves decomposing and gnarled sticks littering the ground, daring anyone to sit.
But sit they did, leaning up against a pair of gums. Joe watched as Aaron searched his pockets and came up with the pipe and opium.
A minute later, preparations concluded. Pipe full and ready.
“You oughta leave ‘em, you know,” Aaron said, brought the pipe to his lips, inhaled. Handed it to Joe.
“Ned?” he asked, inhaled, exhaled. “He needs me, needs a strategist. Needs a guide.”
“And will he need you when he’s dead?” Aaron asked curtly.
Joe shrugged. Inhaled again to avoid answering.
Aaron fell silent too and they sat there, passing the pipe back and forth between them. Like they’d always done. Before.
Joe imagined he could smell the sickly sweet metallic of iron, of blood, and the scent was getting confused in his head with the eucalyptus inherent in the air around him. It was nagging at the edges of his thoughts.
He made himself let it go, knew it was probably just the altered state of his mind. Let himself be soothed and lifted, taken away from the reality he’d fallen into.
Moved into Aaron’s body and tasted the sweet smoke in his friend’s mouth.
He tried not to wonder at the look on Ned’s face when they stumbled back into camp.
* * *
“But I were not prepared to debate with him about my obligations they was no less to my mother than to him. I took a noisy step or 2 towards him and he backed away. Go back to Aaron but don’t whine like a yellow cur.
I ain’t leaving said the maddening b----r don’t you know why?
I did not answer when he spoke again there were a tremor in his voice. Ned you are as good a man as I ever known. He come through the dark putting his clammy grip upon my arm. I am your mate he said thats my bad luck.
He were Aaron’s mate I thought thats worse luck still.”
* * *
The night was getting colder, wind sweeping in from the sea with a deathly chill on its breath. They stood out in it, in the coal black of night, pinpricks of stars blanketing the heavens above them. Driven out into it, angers hot, barely restrained, but restrained nonetheless. Stood there in front of each other in relative safety, seeing each other, but knowing it was too dark to see the accusations and wounded emotions … and the other thoughts that they didn’t show each other in the unforgiving daylight.
Joe left his hand on Ned’s arm, refused to let go until he was sure that his friend understood. Knew that he wasn’t going to leave. He couldn’t understand why, but it was more important than anything else that Ned understood he was his mate.
“Mate or not, I can tell you want to be gone.” Ned said, voice low, slightly grating.
“Aye,” he said, “Just as much as you want to be gone from the hell we’re in, Ned. No more than that.”
He wished he could see better in the dark, wished the light from the hut would spill further out. He could just make out the grim set of Ned’s mouth, see the white’s of his eyes in the moonlight. But he couldn’t read him the way he would like to.
Ned grunted, only the smallest acquiescence.
“I’m here. I’m in it to the effin last now, whether I wanted to be or not. That bounty is on my head too.”
Silence but for cicadas chirping monotonously. A sigh from Ned and the just visible drop of his shoulders. Joe could feel the tone changing around them, soften.
Quietly from Ned, “Aaron’s going to be a problem.”
“Yeah,” Joe sighed, scuffed his boot in the dry dust, “The bugger’s gone and effed it all up.”
Ned’s hand on his arm now. “S’alright. I’m your mate too.”
* * *
“Aaron Sherritt come into the night and saw the twin holes of the shotgun his oldest friend were holding in his hand.
Who else is there he called and while them brave policemen cowered beneath the bed Aaron heard the small cry issue from Joe’s lips it was very quiet an exhalation the noise a boy will make when caned upon the hand. It were almost the last thing he heard.”
* * *
When the rifle jerked in his hand, kicked back hard against his shoulder, Joe almost dropped it for shock.
Not because he’d never shot a rifle, of course. A friend though, he’d never shot one of them before.
But he’d kept his wits somewhat about him, gripped the stock of the gun in his hand and run like buggery back into the bush. Kept on running, dodging trees and skittering over fallen branches. His chest started to burn up and each gasp of air hurt like hell. The cold night slapped him in the face, made his cheeks smart and his eyes water. Or that was what he was going to believe anyway.
And there was Ned, waiting in the clearing holding the reins of their horses. And he could stop running.
Reaching him, he grasped Ned’s shoulder with a hand, bent over and tried to catch his breath, felt Ned’s arm go around his waist, support him. His mate.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Ned said softly near his ear.
Joe nodded, straightened up, face to face with Ned. “I still have you,” he muttered, turned away at the stinging in his eyes.
“You do,” Ned answered. Waited a moment longer before mounting his horse. Waited again until Joe did the same.
* * *
“Joe bestowed on me a queerly sweet and happy smile”
* * *
His thoughts wouldn’t stop storming in his head. Briefly he considered the possibility that he might be sick. He felt hot and then cold and sweat was breaking out along his forehead.
He swallowed with difficulty, throat dry and emotion thick. Trained his eyes upward on a nail sticking out of a beam, tried to make himself see only that.
The queasiness in his stomach seemed to grow stronger, then subside, begin to grow again, and he worried that any minute he’d have to get the hell out and fast before things got messed up.
“Joe?” It was Ned, of course, shifting closer from where he slept next to him. “Joe, you okay?”
He said nothing, couldn’t speak. But took a chance and shifted his gaze to Ned’s, let the horror and fear and worry seep into his eyes.
And Ned understood, “You had to Joe. There was no other way.”
Still Joe could say nothing. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t remember a time in his life where he had felt so miserable and wretched.
Ned’s hand touched his, wrapped around it firmly and held fast. “You had to,” Ned repeated softly.
Joe nodded, felt the damn sting behind his eyes again, fought it back.
Was grateful when Ned’s lips pressed hot against his forehead, soft and comforting.
And gladly accepted the embrace that followed.
Shared the pain.
Began trusting new loyalties.
* * *