It should have been ridiculous. Anyone who heard about it would certainly think so. Joe Byrne, standing in the bush, putting on a dress while Ned Kelly held the horses. What would Joe say if the troopers rode up right now? Yes, we're the terrifying Kelly gang, now could you help me with these buttons?
It was ridiculous. It was screaming-with-laughter funny, the sort of hilarious that would get them both free pints for a month - tell us again about the time Joe wore a skirt.
Except neither of them were laughing. Ned's face was stony as he scanned the bush around them. Alert. Twitchy, even, looking here and there as the wind ruffled their hair, rustled the undergrowth. He wasn't watching Joe struggle into the unfamiliar female clothing, smirking, making a crack about how becoming it was, and would Joe like some ribbons for his hair?
Nor was Joe wise-cracking, commenting how Kate, Ned's sister seemed to, oddly enough, be a different shape to him, and this shawl wasn't really his colour. His hands were cold, and his fingers fumbled the small, hard buttons of the dress. Even had he wanted to laugh, his throat felt like he'd tried to swallow a pebble, got it stuck halfway down. He draped the shawl over his head, fidgeted with the ends, and cleared his throat.
Ned almost jumped, making the horses toss their heads slightly. He looked at Joe, eyes hidden in the night, and reached out to wrap the shawl around in front of Joe's face, the way his mother had worn it in the last weeks before the consumption had taken her.
"You don't have to do this," Ned said, quiet and gruff.
Joe shook his head once, short. "I do."
Ned just nodded, and handed over the shotgun. There was nothing more to be said. Not between them, not after everything, not on this night. No words, no laughter.
Because what they were about here was execution, no more, no less. Because a man Joe had considered his friend, old and dear, had run to the police, had decided to take all the years and everything they'd shared and piss on it.
Joe grit his teeth, and slipped away through the brush as silent as any horsethief ever had. Through the sparse gum tree branches moonlight filtered down, enough to confuse, not enough to break illusion. He slipped between silvered trunks to the clearing around Aaron's shanty. A few steps into the cleared space, he stopped, pressing the shotgun against his leg, behind the fall of the skirt. He swallowed hard, and pitched his voice higher and sweeter.
"Aaron," he called, he crooned, a woman enticing a lover out into the night. A siren call.
The wind shuffled Joe's skirt against the shotgun. He thought he saw movement at a window. Couldn't be sure.
He called again: "Aaron."
The night hushed the clearing. He couldn't see any sign of life from the shanty. What if, for whatever reason, Aaron didn't come out?
He waited, nerves stretching, and finally took a shaking breath, called again.
When the door to the shanty opened, it sounded loud as a thunderclap. Aaron sidled out, gait slow and uncertain. He edged closer, out of the light from inside, into Joe's moonlight.
The blood suddenly seemed sluggish in Joe's veins, the shotgun heavy in his hand. This was his friend, coming haltingly towards him, asking something Joe couldn't hear beyond the noise in his head. His friend who'd have got them all killed, turned them all in, and God be good, why?
He could hear Ned's voice, remembered him talking as they stood close together in the warm space between their horses. Slow and steady, though that was normally Joe's part, but tonight it had been Ned, telling him calm and sure what they both knew had to be done. "There'll be troopers." Of course. They wouldn't leave their prize informant unattended, hoping for an easy catch. Joe could see them, behind the windows of the shanty, sitting down, bored with events. "We leave him dead. Wait until you can be sure."
Aaron stepped forward further, wary but not enough. Joe had shot too much, shot too many, could shoot him from here. He lifted the shotgun.
He could see Aaron's face. Could see comprehension and knowledge and fear. "Joe."
"Yes," he whispered, and pulled the trigger.
"Afterwards," Ned had said, in that quite space between horseflesh, "run like hell."
Joe ran. Holding the gun high by the stock in one hand and wrenching the stupid skirt up in the other, he ran, leaping and bounding through the undergrowth. Silence didn't matter now, speed did, and he was back at the horses in a dozen heartbeats, his blood pumping hot and crazy.
Ned was already on his horse; Joe tossed him the shotgun, and ripped off the dress, the buttons and seams tearing and popping. ("It's old and useless," Kate had said flippantly, "so do what you will with it. What do you need a dress for, anyway?" But Ned had stared at her so stonily she'd turned away, and not asked again.)
"It's done," he said, swinging up onto his horse. He said needlessly, because he knew, Ned knew, but it seemed somehow important that the passing of one who'd once been a friend be marked by something other than an anonymous shot in the night.
"Let's go," Ned said curtly.
Joe ripped the shawl from his neck, and let it fall as kicked his horse after Ned's. Lost himself in the rush of flight. They burst out of the stand of trees Aaron's shanty stood in, galloped across cleared earth as the half-moon fled behind a cloud and shone forth again.
But the night was no time for reckless haste; moon or no, a horse with its leg turned down a rabbit hole was still a write-off of a valuable beast. They slowed to a walk, dismounted to lead the horses, and thought caught up to them. Joe hadn't missed it.
There was no sign of pursuit. The troopers probably hadn't left the clearing, if they'd even missed Aaron's presence at all. All false bravado, hiding behind their moustaches, her Majesty's finest Victorian police. They wouldn't venture forth into a night that might hold the entire Kelly gang. They might never even find the shredded remains of Joe's disguise, the ripped and discarded dress.
If they did, would they necessarily connect the dress to the shooting, or the gang? Outlaws in skirts?
He thought of them all robbing a bank, corseted and bustled, and before he knew it he was laughing, only quietly, almost under his breath. But he couldn't seem to stop. It was just all so ridiculous.
A hand planted in his chest stopped him; his horse nudged him from behind. Joe looked up, catching his breath, gaze going from Ned's hand on his chest up the arm to his face, stony and grim. "Give me your reins," Ned ordered.
Joe obeyed, and Ned stepped to the side of the road, tied both sets of reins off on a tree trunk. What, were they stopping for a picnic? But Joe didn't say anything as Ned came back to stand in front of him in the roadway.
"Now," Ned said, raising his chin slightly in that classically stubborn Kelly way, "let it out already."
"What?" Had he finally actually gone mad?
Maybe, but he was standing his ground. "You just shot a man in cold blood, Joe. What's more, he was your friend. An old friend. You did time together. He took a beating for you once. You broke his nose over Annie Mallone. And you just killed him. Premeditated murder."
Joe made his hands relax from the fists they were trying to form. "It had to be done," he ground out between his teeth.
"It did," Ned responded angrily.
He took a step forward. "He set us up."
Ned didn't step back. "He did."
"Then what's the damn problem!" He was shouting; he didn't care.
Ned shoved his shoulder. "Let it out!"
"Damn you, Ned!" But his fist was moving before he even thought about it, coming up with satisfying force into that belligerent Kelly chin.
The punch sent him staggering backwards, but he recovered fast, and charged forwards, head down. His shoulder hit Joe in the chest and kept going. All the breath left Joe as he hit the broad trunk of a gum by the side of the road, Ned's shoulder crushing his ribs. Stars danced before his eyes, and he wheezed for breath through a grin he couldn't quell. The blood was dancing in his veins now, screaming and maddening. He brought a fist up into Ned's ribs, pushed him off as his grip loosened. He followed him, stayed close to tug him upright up the coat and sink another punch into his stomach.
Ned grunted at the blow, breath against Joe's cheek where their faces were close together. He drew his head back, and Joe spotted the butt too late, turning his head slightly and still catching Ned's forehead against his, knocking him back against the tree again. Dizzy, he reached up, grabbed Ned by the collar and yanked him forward.
And kissed him. He didn't know if that's what he'd intended, couldn't remember as their teeth met with a click. His breath was coming fast through his nose and it was nothing like kissing a girl, nothing like give and all like take. There was no smoothness in the beard that scratched against his, no softness in the hands gripping his shoulders, no gentleness in the way Ned's mouth pushed against his and he pushed back.
It was like fighting all over again and there was no delineation between the kiss ending and Ned's knuckles crunching in just under Joe's ribs. Joe grunted, shoved him back and threw another punch at his jaw. Ned wore this one, took it solid, but Joe followed up, returning the favour with his shoulder planted in Ned's chest. Staggering back, Ned tried to bring his knee up into Joe's stomach, but Joe caught the leg and heaved.
They both went down, thrown off balance and winded, crashing to the ground on the side of the road amidst shattering bark dropped from the gum trees. They fell untidily, Ned sprawling on his back, Joe landing half on top, an elbow in his side, his head on his shoulder. Quiet returned around them and they lay there, getting their breath back. Joe had an arm tossed over Ned's chest; Ned's arm curled over Joe's shoulder and his hand lay heavy in the centre of his back.
"I did it for you," Joe told Ned's shoulder.
Ned grunted like he'd hit him again. "Please," he said, voice a low rumble, "don't ever tell me that."
Joe nodded slowly, his beard scratching against Ned's coat. "All right," he agreed.
They clambered back to their feet slowly, with quiet hisses and winces of pain, brushing off dirt and shards of bark. Joe stretched his side slightly, and grimaced at the twinge that promised stiffness tomorrow. Ned rubbed at his chin as they walked back across the road to where the horses stood, bored and incurious. They untied the reins in silence. There was nothing more to be said. Not between them, not after everything, not on this night. They untied the reins, wrapped them around bruised knuckles, and continued on their way.
A few minutes down the road, his question from earlier occurred to Joe again. It seemed he'd thought it a year ago, not barely an hour, watching Aaron walking out from his shanty. Aaron, his friend, who'd thrown it all away, for what?
"Why'd he do it, do you think? Just for the money?" But as soon as the question was out of Joe's mouth, as Ned stopped and turned to answer him, Joe knew the answer for himself. Why had Aaron turned informer, why had Joe shot him in the middle of the night, wearing a dress, why did anyone do anything?
Men acted done for strange, unknowable, inexplicable reasons. People, inside their own heads, could find the most outlandish of justifications. They had reasons that need make no sense to anyone else. And a man would die for them. A man would kill.
Joe had done it for Ned. He'd do it again. He'd take up his gun and he'd shoot and he'd kill and he'd live by his side and one day - soon, he knew that, but he prayed not too soon - he'd die there too.
That was all the reason he had. All he needed. And beside that, who could tell what had moved Aaron to do what he'd done?
Really, it was all just ridiculous.