Literature Competition Entry #3: Fragments from an Outlaw’s Journal by Georgina Stones

Darkness folds around Joe, memories flickering, painfully, to the surface, while he waits for the train that Ned promises will come…

I pour another glass full of whiskey and reach into my pocket, the small packet of opium powder ruffles beneath my fingers. I think this is my third dose, but I cannot be sure. Nothing will be strong enough to blur the vision of Aaron, lying dead at my feet. I have long been haunted by the blood that was spilled at Stringybark Creek, but nothing could have prepared me for the blood that leeched out of Aaron. Christ. The way it spurted between his fingers in a wild arc of crimson, as he clutched at his throat and staggered backwards. But I aimed again and pulled the trigger, the shot shredded through his shirt and skin, instantly shattering his ribs, which exploded out from underneath his favorite cotton shirt. Aaron gargled and spluttered, falling backwards, he smashed his head against an old potato box. Then came the screaming and wailing of Belle, piercing my ears worse than the blast of the bloody shotgun. I looked down at what I had caused, my eyesight blurred, the bashing of Dan’s fist on the door seemed a hundred miles away…

***

I dared not tell Ned of what had occurred, and thankfully, he has not yet asked. If I were a superstitious cove I would tap on this table, but I have never cared for such a notion…We had gone to Aaron’s with the intention of killing the mongrels hiding in his hut, we hoped it would scare Sherritt out of Victoria. But when old man Wick knocked on the door and I heard the bugger laughing, I could not contain the rage that burned. Aaron had virtually starved us out, he had become as much our enemy as that bastard Ward and smart old Hare. I had remained loyal to him, even when my own mother was in my ear, I had not faltered in this loyalty. But a man can only be pushed so far. I had done six months in gaol for the idjit, breaking rock, my feet red raw from the ill-fitting shoes I was constantly marched in, all for the cow he had slaughtered. Spent a day and a half sweating in the lockup for the effing trouble with Ah On…After our release I swore the bastard would never put me away again; I have always been a man of my word.

***

I swirl the glass to dissolve the powder and throw back the contents, if I still had the sensation of taste I’d have complained of the bitterness, but my dependence on alcohol and opium has meant I can no longer taste a great deal. The weeks after Stringybark Creek, I was never separated from the bottle. How could I not be? My dreams were constantly filled with gunshots, shouting and blood. The nights were the worst. Hard to escape reality when you’re stuck in a cave with three other men, all of us with blood on our hands. In order to deal with the visons that plagued me, I’d drink myself into a stupor and obsess over the rings on my fingers. Twisting and pulling at them until my fingers were swollen and red. The following morning I would wake, slumped against the rock, with Danny standing over me, a pannikin of creek water in his hands. I was showing them to Mrs. Jones earlier, and she wanted a closer look, but couldn’t get the damned things off. They have always been a tight fit, especially Scanlan’s, I think he must have had fingers like a woman, certainly nothing like my pair of fives. Suppose these rings have become a part of me now, Ma would tell me it’s so God knows that I have sinned, but I think he knows anyhow, with or without these blasted things…

***

A week after Da died, Ma gifted me a prayer book for my fourteenth birthday, but not one for the word of God, I tore the pages out and replaced them. It’s become my journal, an outlaw’s journal, I suppose. I’ve been writing in it here, whenever I am gifted the chance. The bits I had written about Maggie I gave to her as a gift of my love. She is unable to read a great deal, so I recited to her what I had written. Danny reckons he keeps a journal too, but it’s only a few bits of scrap paper, and truth be told, I’ve not seen the young beggar ever writing.

***

Ma has always been of the opinion that religion and having faith is of the utmost importance. Da would often humor her, but I have found it difficult to do so. I always detested going to church. A few times I would hide in Wick’s orchard; however it was always to no avail. One incident I have never been able to shake from my memory occurred just after Da had died. The priest, whom I knew to be a liar, ventured close behind me and put his hand on my shoulder, his nails digging deep into my sack coat. “You’re a nice looking fellow aren’t you?” He whispered. Unable to conceal the fear that trembled within me, I shook from him and ran out the door, not stopping until I reached home. When Ma arrived back with my brothers and sisters, her face was distorted with anger. She yelled at me for embarrassing her in front of her friends and swore I would face eternal damnation if I were to act like that again. She blamed my behavior on the books I read, so she threw them all in the fire. For a long time I tried to be the son she wanted, but I was never quite good enough. It always seemed to me she would have preferred Aaron as her son, he wasn’t, as she put it, “afraid of hard work.” I have never understood her, she would berate me for spending afternoons at the public library in Beechworth, yet she insisted she valued education…

***

The only time I remember her being truly proud is when I came first in my class in reading and writing. Before Da had his turn, I was always a good scholar, even when bloody Aaron tried to persuade me to muck about with him. Da couldn’t read or write anything, except an ink scratch that resembled his name, but he liked me to sit beside him at the table and write him poems. When I was given the certificate by Mr. Donoghue, I dared not put in my pocket for fear it would tear, so I held it in my hands, as tenderly as a newborn lamb. On the walk home with Kate and Patsy I held it aloft, so proud I was of what I had achieved. I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, Ma and Da’s faces when I arrived home, the look of pride, something I have not known since…

***

Relaxed by the opium powder and whiskey, I lean back in my chair and let my eyes wander around the room at the collection of men we have rounded up, some full of pluck, others as skittish as foals. Through the doorway, I can see Dan playing cards with one of the younger men, while Jane Jones sits on his knee, holding one of his revolvers. He catches me looking and winks over Jane’s shoulder; I merely shake my head at him. He’s always been a cheeky bugger when it’s come to girls, reckons he has had many a donah. When the pair of us would stay up, keeping sentry over Steve and Ned while they slept, Danny would tell me endless tales of his time with a young lass named Ginnie, who seemed to be nothing but skin and bone. Of course, I’d tell him stories about the women I had charmed…

***

Ann Jones, her cheeks flushed, moves about the bar. After the dancing had concluded she quizzed me about Maggie, I didn’t say much. What can I say? Stuck here, waiting as I am for this godforsaken train, so that we may send it and all its police occupants to hell. It’s a pity old Ward and bloody Mullane won’t be travelling; I’d give all the money in the world to see their bloated and mangled carcasses amongst the wreckage. I will never forget when the pair of them came looking for Aaron and myself at Sheepstation Creek, the way they looked down their noses, near scoffing at us they were. When I was first outlawed, I sent him word that if I ever caught him, I would shove his body in a hollow log and burn it. He knew I was serious. Joey Byrne rarely plays bluff.

***

Pulling the cork free with my teeth, I empty the remaining whiskey into the nobbler and throw it back in a single swig. I wish to quell the thoughts that gnaw, but I know it is all in vain; Aaron lying face down in his own blood and gore devours my mind…

***

Tearing another packet of opium powder, I tap the contents into the glass which begin to dissolve in the sticky remnants of whiskey and reach across for the gin bottle. Gulping the drug, I finger the keepsake that is hidden beneath my crimean shirt. Maggie, my darling Maggie. When we are alone together there is such hunger between us, I have never known a woman quite like her. She helps me to forget the reality of this pitiful existence, where I am able to lose the outlaw guise and become truly myself. Maggie is branded with the scars of her previous life in Cornwall, and I swear to her, and I swear again, that if I am to ever come across him I will do more than merely shoot the mongrel. We often lie together in Maggie’s quarters at the Vine, wrapped in a haze of opium filled bliss. I smile now as I think of her, curled around me, sucking opium smoke like clean mountain air… She has begun making visits into the Chinese camp to procure the drug, as the traps have made it too hot for Patsy to do so. I wear her ring around my neck as a promise of my love and the future I hoped may be granted to us. Yet with every hour that passes on the hands of Mrs. Jones’ grandfather clock, I become less certain…

***

I must finish here, Neddy is calling for me. There is a trap named Bracken who must be fetched.

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