The small army of women and children Ned had decided to shift from the Stanistreets’ house moved into the inn quietly – or at least as quietly as children have the capacity for. Dan kept the door open for everyone to enter, his revolver tucked prominently in his belt. Ned peeled away from the group and strode across the verandah to the whitewashed sign that proudly proclaimed that the tiny inn had the best accommodation. He looked beyond and saw Joe resting his elbows on a fence rail behind the inn near the stables. Ned shifted the slip rail and walked past the bonfire where prisoners warmed their hands against the bitter cold and joined his mate, who was puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. Smoking like a chimney, Ned thought.
“This train is running awful late,” Joe said without looking up.
“Aye, but Hare won’t miss the chance to take another crack at us with a fresh trail. As sure as mud after the rain.” Ned ventured reaching into the pouch on his belt that held his pipe and tobacco.
“What’s he waiting for, then?” Joe’s lips pursed and he fell quiet. Ned used his clasp knife to shave a plug of tobacco to the right size, catching the shavings in his palm. He’d never gotten used to cut tobacco since leaving Pentridge. He put away the plug and knife and rubbed out the shavings, the rich aromatics of the tobacco, like wine, cherries and wood, wafting through the cold air from his warm hands. Joe’s silence began to make Ned uneasy.
“How are you holding up, mate?” asked Ned. Joe didn’t respond immediately.
“I’m just thinking.” said Joe behind tiny curls of smoke that unfurled from his lips. Ned barely glanced at his best friend, plugging the bowl of his pipe and attempting to light it with a match. The cold air made Ned’s fingers less useful than he’d like. It was just another annoyance in a long line of annoyances since Friday night.
“I keep seeing Aaron there on the floor bathed in blood. Can’t breathe, can’t speak. I blew my best friend apart in front of his wife. He knew it was me. His eyes…” Joe trailed off. He was devoid of the colour of health that usually painted his countenance, but instead bore dark rings under his eyes and a blotchy redness that stained his face from his almost constant consumption of gin and whiskey since his arrival. His shoulders sagged as if in defeat. Ned was defiant, however, clasping Joe’s shoulder.
“He chose his side and he’s paid for it.” he said, tiny plumes of smoke carrying each syllable from his mouth.
“Aye, and so shall we if this plan succeeds.” Silence fell briefly between the pair.
“Do you ever think about them – the police you killed?” Joe asked. Ned’s eyes glazed just for a moment as the echoes of gunshots from Stringybark Creek filled his head. He envisioned Kennedy’s watch and the letter, smeared with bloody fingerprints, that would never reach Kennedy’s widow. He felt his own hands releasing the clasp on Lonigan’s gun belt and wrapping the leather around his own waist. He pictured the way the letter’s pages had curled and turned black in the fire.
“Every day,” Ned said calmly, “that’s why I carry Lonigan’s gun and this watch – so I never forget that my own liberty has not come cheaply. After today we’ll never have to look over our shoulder again.”
Joe coughed to clear his throat. “See that mountain there?” he said softly. Ned nodded. “Aye, that’s Morgan’s Lookout. What of it?” Joe shifted to lean against the fence with his back, sucking the last of the smoke through his pipe and letting its woody tones paint the inside of his mouth. “Remember why it’s called that?”
Ned looked at Joe with befuddlement – the story was common knowledge, of course he remembered. “That’s where Dan Morgan hid after he crossed the border from New South Wales. He bailed up everyone from here to Benalla.” Ned bore a smirk of admiration. He’d always had a soft spot for Morgan growing up. He would read the papers with his father to learn of the latest of Morgan’s depredations and occasionally his father would come back from the pub with the latest news on the grapevine. He idolised Morgan for his one man war on unfair employers and the police. To him as a child of poverty nothing was more romantic than an outlaw challenging the very people who he felt oppressed his family and kept them poor. The thought of highway robbery took him back to his days riding with Harry Power. Ah yes, Harry Power, remembered by those who didn’t know him as a funny old rogue and a teller of tall tales, the self-proclaimed friend of the poor and reliever of burdensome purses, the tutor in crime of the notorious Edward Kelly (of course in those days he was simply ‘young Kelly’). How much had changed in the ten years since those days when Power taught him how to smoke a pipe or change a horse’s brand with iodine in between cursing him and hurling whatever was at hand at his head because his stricture was playing up. The smirk faded.
“What happened to him then?”
Joe’s question seemed pointed in a way Ned was not comfortable with. Joe tipped the ashes of his spent tobacco out of his pipe with a dour expression.
“What are you driving at?” asked Ned impatiently.
“Don’t you remember Peechelba Station? They shot him like a mad dog without a fight then they skinned his face, cut off his head and anything else that made him a man before dumping what was left in an unmarked grave, forgotten and unloved.” Joe went quiet.
“Aye, and if I ever find that Wendlan who put the bullet through him I’ll return the favour.” Ned rumbled. Joe scowled.
“This is our problem, Ned. Here we are at the foot of the monument to Dan Morgan’s final days about to do something even he would never dream of, and you’re shooting your mouth off about killing another person. Don’t you see how that makes us look?” Joe’s voice trembled slightly. He’d never gotten angry like this at Ned before – not to his face.
“Do you doubt me, Joe?” Ned narrowed his eyes. Joe could always tell when Ned’s pride was at risk of injury by the way his eyebrows knitted and his jaw clenched behind his dirty red beard.
“Ned, I’ve soaked my hands in blood for you, don’t you understand that? What we’re doing here… It’s almost unspeakable. If that train comes…”
“It will come.”
“…if it comes and our plan works, what does that make us? Where does it end?”
Ned sighed. His eyebrows met, his beard bristled and he puffed his chest out.
“The traps and politicians declared war on us. They’ve made it a crime to know us and they’ve shown there’s no depth they won’t drop to in order to get us. It ends when we win. They want a war? We’ll show them how we fight wars out here. This is Kelly Country!” Ned growled.
“Kelly Country…” Joe scoffed, “this is not a war; we have no army here. We have the four of us, a rabble of drunks in that inn as our prisoners and a quarter inch of steel between us and the might of Victoria’s Empire. You’ve not courted a fight, Ned, you’ve engineered a slaughter!” Joe’s countenance seemed suddenly shrouded in gloom. “Maybe we really are the monsters the papers make us out to be.” Ned balled his hands into tight fists as he wheeled around to put Joe back in his place but Joe was already walking away.
“Whether at the end of a rope or the end of a bullet, we’ll have to pay the piper for what we’ve done – what we’re about to do,” Joe adjusted his tatty, crocheted scarf. “And if I have a date with death, I’m going to get some more drinking in first.”
Ned sulked at the fence, in his head he raged about that bloody ingrate, that doubting Thomas, that cad with the larrikin heels and the barmaid lusting over him at the Vine. The cold air condensing against the breath jetting from his nostrils lent him the appearance of a furious dragon. As he gazed at the mountain a crow swooped low and landed on the fence next to him. He stared at the bird with its shiny black feathers and cold eyes. It stared back at him.
“Cawww!” the crow exclaimed. Ned remembered his granny telling him stories of the Morrigan when he was a little boy, the Celtic goddess of war and death who could transform into a murder of crows and protect warriors in battle – or claim their souls in defeat. With a flurry of its midnight wings, the crow left as suddenly as it had appeared. Ned then checked the time…
[Memories of Morgan is a creative interpretation of a discussion that may have happened during the events at Glenrowan in 1880. It is an opportunity to examine the characters of Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne during this critical moment in their lives and how their respective interpretations of their world can help to explain their motivations and later actions during the siege. As much as we know of this event and these people, there are many gaps in our knowledge and creative work such as this can help to fill those gaps if approached in the right way. – Aidan Phelan, author.]