I knew he had to die. Him or me. Fuck it. Both. I am sure of that now. But I knew even before I let meself think it, weeks more it was before I said as much to Ned. Time when I would sit and wonder how that would be, what I would say to him, before like. What I needed to say to him about why.
Ned he just kept schtum, let me come to the whys and wherefores on me own, despite that his lot was baying for blood, Sherrit blood. Even more than that of the coppers it seemed. As if there weren’t to be enough already.
Paddy and me well we just talked quiet, in case speaking it out loud would have us both struck down or summat before we could get to the end of the story. I know he’ll do the job fer me- keep the lid on it in the Woolshed that night when I come. Not a soul will go running for the traps, not unless we want them too. He’s a good man Paddy. Better than me.
He had coppers in his bed, shared his bed and his girl they said! I couldn’t believe it, not Aaron! I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with me own eyes, but there’s coppers there day and night.
A blush of anger, regret and shame exposed itself on his face and he turned his back to the open door. His mate, Aaron Sherrit, would be dead by the morning.
Perhaps I never knew him at all eh? Perhaps it were all a fuckin’ lie from the start of it. Whatever the truth of it he is lost to me now, to us and whatever fuckin’ dreams we have of making something better here.
Joe concentrated on the rows of buttons, his shirt, his waistcoat and his jacket. He didn’t want to think too much anymore and there was a rhythm in sliding each one into allotted space that quietened the thoughts that threatened to ride unbridled in his head. His fingers, obeying some law of order and precision, contrived to make him look the part, weaving intent and resolve with his preparations.
Fuck who cares what I look like? Isn’t going to be in the Murray Advertiser is it?
The smallest smile responded to the story his mind was inventing in a rush of newsprint headlines
‘Horrified onlookers were disappointed to see that Byrne, well known to all the Ladies of these parts for his sartorial elegance, had arrived all skiwiff having failed to do his buttons up straight.’
A more sombre thought however had the smile flee from his lips. There was something about pride, a solemn decision and dressing right. Like going to church on a Sunday, a wedding or a funeral maybe.
His hands smoothed down the fabric of the jacket over his hips, covering the pistol that nestled deep in his waistband, patting the slim volume in his breast pocket along with a small paper bag. Prepared for anything, just him and whatever came his way. His neck in the noose if he chose it. Die by Ned’s side, that’s what he had said, seemed he was going to get the opportunity.
Beside him Dan huffed and puffed and joked about how they’d have to be sure to get back to the Glenrowan Inn sharpish for breakfast afterwards. Bacon if they were lucky and Mrs Jones hadn’t fed it all to the others before they got there. “Can’t go starting a revolution on an empty stomach eh? And sure we’ll be buildin’ up quite an appetite, all that ridin’ and shootin’!”
Joes jaw tightened. He wished he was going alone, though it’d be more dangerous. He could just shut everythin’ else out then, just do it. “Christ, will yer stop with the babbling!”
Dan thumped his hand on the table, a show for the group of men that stood just inside the door talking quietly. The Kelly sympathisers were strong now, gathering and talking revolution as they planned the next day’s events- the derailing of the train outside Glenrowan and a firecracker start to the new Republic. Aaron’s death would be just a note in it all, a part of the strategy to bring down the Queen.
“Jesus Joe, what the hell is wrong with yer?! You hardly said a word for hours. We’re making history Ned said and there’s not a peep out of yer! Come on now- the bastard’s a stoolie- is getting what’s comin’ if yer ask me”
“Well I fuckin’ didn’t ask you did I? Now shut yer mouth or I will be aiming this pistol at you instead!” The momentary disbelief and hurt in Dan’s face made Joe wince just a bit, and he shrugged slightly as if to make light of it; at least Ned hadn’t insisted on Steve coming. At least there was that. Ned wanted it to be known- it were the Kelly’s and Joe together, no arguments and no division. “Look, go check the pack and the horses will yer?”
“I already did a hundred times!”
“Well make it a hundred and soddin’ one then…” His stare had Dan mutter, as he walked away back to where the horses were tethered that was, leaving Joe to continue his meticulous attention. His beard was longer than he’d worn before and the palm of his hand rubbed the coarse hair that didn’t seem quite attached to him. Been a long time he’d seen a razor and a mirror, longer still that he’d let one of those Chinese fellas cut it real close to his skin.
Paddy had grown his just the same, twins they could be, least he thought Paddy’d like to imagine so. ‘The Byrne boys! Peas in a pod’ people said. And maybe that were true, though from the look on his ma’s face perhaps she had other hopes for Paddy. But they’d become accustomed to riding each others horses, wearing the same clothes, fooling those bloody stupid traps. Felt a bit like the old days with his mate. Just a bit.
Except of course Paddy had jumped onto one side of the fence, had thrown his lot in with his brother Joe. He had stepped up to the mark.
Joe spat in his hands and smoothed them over his hair, pressing down the curls that were intent on defying neatness.
“What are yer up to in there Byrne? Not smokin’ that stuff are yer” Dan outside all cocky again “It’s nearly dark. Ned says we should be on our way”
“I’ll go when I am bloody ready Kelly” he spoke through his teeth, not quite sure he wanted anyone else to hear except himself. A stubbornness made him pull his pistol out again, open the barrel, check the mechanism. Taking another big swig of whiskey he satisfied himself that enough moments had passed before turning to the door. A step or two later his legs carried him out to a dirt yard. All he could feel was the eyes of people. Staring.
I’ll never be the same after this night. If I can kill one man in cold blood, why not another? Sure I have Lonigan’s ring on my one hand and Scanlon’s on the other, but those bastards would have had us first. It was a fair fight- once we got some guns at least. This is murder. Which one of the Commandments is that now?
None could quite look him in the eye, a kind of awe about them as if the gathered throng would part like the Dead Sea if he took it upon himself to walk through them. Quiet eyes watched, the night silent apart from the racket them crickets make in the dusk.
He felt a wave of laughter gathering in his chest, surely it should be like in that play, a fine speech about country and glorious victory before he set off with a shining sword at his side and an army at his heels, all rallying to his call. My Kingdom for a horse! Ha. Instead here he was with a rusty old Winchester and a boy called Dan Kelly, he didn’t know where he would start with the noble speech neither. The bottle in his hand touched his mouth, almost just something to do to break the spell.
Through the stillness there was just one voice “I see yer all spruced up then mate!” Ned the only one that would speak to him, dare to speak perhaps, a friendly clap on the back as if they were meeting at the Whorouly races for an afternoon’s gambling.
Joe just nodded, and caught the question in Ned’s eye “You sure?” quieter between them.
Ned nodded just once and looked around for Dan. “Right. Glenrowan then, by the morning”
Joe knew the way, of course he did. His mother’s selection was just around the bend and over the creek; no doubt she’d be warming something on the fire now, Ellie and Denny with their mouths already watering with the smell of it. Paddy was out in the Woolshed. This was Byrne heartland and he knew why his brother had come back tonight.
Music slowed at the slight tug on her reins. Steady. He prayed Dan wouldn’t start up again with his questions which mainly focussed on how they were to get Aaron away from the coppers long enough to shoot him and not end up caught themselves. Not that the questions were unreasonable, it wasn’t that, but Joe was just waiting, waiting for it to form in his own mind, for the opportunity – a sign that he was doing the right thing to come. He couldn’t explain, not yet.
The sharp bend hid their approach to the shack at Devil’s Elbow where Aaron, his new bride Belle, her mother no doubt, since she seemed to spend most evenings in the shack, and any number of coppers were going about their business. As they sat just listening Joe wondered idly how anyone would consider living such a place. Rumour was the previous tenant has disappeared a few years back without a word, leaving it to be encroached by the spindly trunks of gum trees. Maybe there was something about sitting with Satan. Tempting fate. But then Aaron wasn’t Catholic was he? The protestant hell fires weren’t bellowed so high and in any case he had all the protection of the Victoria police right there in his own home.
It ain\’t goin\’ to help you none.
It was cold in this dip, as if the mist gathered and just stayed, dulling the hooves of the horses and the sounds of movement in the shack ahead. Joe shivered involuntarily and turned in the saddle, indicating with a tilting nod of his head that they should get off the track, out of sight. He needed to think. The whiskey seemed to help some, made things less complicated. He drained the bottle and let his senses just focus on the stinging heat for a moment, his body’s demands for black opium not to be answered just yet.
Dan’s wild eyes begged him in the dark “What are we going to do Joe? We can’t just walk up…”
You shouldn’t be here, Danny. This is nuttin’ to do with you. All that puffing up gone now, it is just me and you in the dark- and me yer only life line. Christ! Be better off running right now, saying yer lost me or the traps split us up, before it’s too late. But you won’t, I know that. Ned said ter come and despite that I can feel the shaking in the air, you got no choice neither. A Kelly and that’s the end of the matter. Poor bastard.
“Ssssh did yer hear that?”
“I can’t hear nuttin’ just me teeth rattling in my head!” Dan grinned a bit and pulled his jacket tighter.
Joe closed his eyes, unable to look for a second at that open face that stared back at him, like he should dig in his pocket for a penny or two and send him on his way, but the distinct sound of whistling grew sharper. Somebody was coming, walking unsteadily along the track to where they hid in the trees. Joe reached for the pistol, stilling himself to just sense, gauge the fall of the boot, the breath and the words that might offer a clue.
In the dimness he squinted until the shape took form until he could whisper with a smile “It’s ol’ man Wicks.” This was it – the chance, the sign- his mind was already several steps ahead of himself. They appeared like apparitions from the dark night trees as if it was nothing to be remarked on at all, Joe‘s voice direct and clear
“Mr Wicks- hello there”
“Joe? Joe Byrne? Is that you that I see?” The terror wasn’t far from the edge of his voice.
“Aye sure it is! And this here is Mr Kelly. A fine night wouldn’t you say?”
Anton Wicks hesitated, undecided as to the correct answer since it most likely depended on what happened next. He managed an attempt at nonchalance, his German accent he hoped disguising the tremor “It is as good as any for the time of the year!”
A cold sweat was beginning to trickle between his shoulder blades as he searched for some reason that explained why he appeared to find himself ambushed by the boy turned man in front of him. A man who was now holding a gun and who had perhaps never forgotten that he had very nearly spent time in Beechworth gaol on account of a ‘borrowed’ horse belonging to the Wicks. In the end the fine had been a hefty one it had to be said. But surely, Anton half pleaded with his own reasoning, that unfortunate incident was past now, so many years later?
Joe studied the face of the older man closely and smiled- some part of him recalling another Joseph Byrne amongst family and friends and neighbours in the Woolshed. Consequences and decisions had seemed so much less important then. He had been 17 and that black horse just too tempting to leave in the paddock. “Ah now Mr Wicks, you had me banged to rights with that horse, and I had to take me punishment fair and square- I forgive yer.” The relief on the German’s face encouraged Joe to play a little more with him “though maybe I am not so willing to forgive you for inducing me Ma to troop us all down to Brays studio for a photograph!”
Anton swallowed hard and forced a smile “A fine likeness as I recall Joe!” The small portrait Margret Byrne had presented him with in return for one of his own daughter Anne had not been displayed on the mantelpiece of late, not with things been how they were, in fact it had long since been pushed inside a box away from any eyes that might take note.
An amused glance flashed between Dan and Joe before Joe answered with grin “Aye some say so!”
Anton grimaced, unsure of the point of their little joke and decided it best to change the subject “What is it that you are doing here Joe- and Dan Kelly is it? The police are in all places in the Woolshed- I have heard that they are staying just around the corners of the road” He thought better of mentioning Joe’s friend, it was none of his business after all was it? “You should be hurrying to be getting away from here!” He opened his eyes wide and nodded his head, hopeful that his concern might make Joe look favourably on him, or better still that the news might make him ride away.
Joe breathed out heavy. “We know there’s coppers here Mr Wicks, in fact I am not sure there is a soul in the whole of Victoria who doesn’t know that they are in that shack with Sherrit. But I’ve a job for you, if yer willing of course.” The hand on the revolver suggested that it wasn’t a request.
Joe dismounted and along with Anton Wicks, a double barrelled shotgun acquired at Stringybark creek and any last regrets banished by black determination, he began the final few yards through the scrub to the back of the Sherrit homestead. Of course there was no sentry posted, he knew there would not be. Paddy and the boys had been watching for days- weeks. Even Denny Byrne, young as he was, peered in the window on the way to school of a morning to see how many coppers were inside. There was never a sentry posted. They were either stupid or …well Joe had thought hard on that, but it was too late now to consider any more possibilities. It was just too late.
Now it has come to the time, and I have none. No time left and no words to explain why neither. Perhaps Aaron thought I wouldn’t come for him, that me promises and me threats were all false. Perhaps that’s why he’s been riding round the Woolshed with Hare and Ward bold as brass, perhaps that’s why he’s been drinking in Beechworth with coppers and putting them onto Maggie. Or perhaps he knew that I would come, that we would end up here anyway.
Some distance away he could hear the crackle of twigs underfoot in the undergrowth, the shifting of weight as Paddy and the boys positioned themselves, watching, standing guard in the trees, the odd whistle let him know exactly where if he should need them. Waiting for him to execute the first part of the plan- the death of Aaron which would be the first domino in a line. Here and in Glenrowan, they were waiting for him.
The whiskey was working now clouding the thoughts that kept banging in his head, the sudden lurch he would feel to throw down the shotgun and ride as fast as he could to anywhere away from here, the ache that told him to stop all this. Joe gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, his mind racing round one last time over the letters he had sent, the opium soaked nightmare when the spirals of accusations of deceit and shame prompted those letters begging Aaron to give him a sign. A wave of anger surged up as if to reforge his will.
I got me answer alright didn\’t I? “Fuck you Joe!” But it doesn’t matter anymore none of that. This is a war. A war bigger than me and him. He can go to hell – we will be seeing each other again for sure. And maybe that is what he wants too, an end to it all.
Listen to them all in there! Laughing and talking- in the end like settles with like. Shit collects together at the bottom of the hole.
A sudden urge to put an end to his own endless torture of doubt, stop the constant round of it all in his head, had him step up to the door. The mutter to Anton Wicks was a harsh order “Do it!” At the sound of Anton’s hesitant knock Joe could hear clearly the voices inside and he jabbed his pistol closer into soft cloth to illicit the agreed response “It is Anton Wicks. I have lost my way!” Heavy footsteps he knew to be Aaron’s crossed the wooden floor, the opening scrape of a welcoming bolt sliding back had him hold his breath. Once he would have seen his mate’s face light up and the door flung open to welcome him in. Once he would have been what passed for home.
But not now.
Now there were just a few seconds when the mist cleared, sharp clarity in the darkness and Joe raised the shotgun above Anton Wicks’ shoulder. He took a last look at the man he had shared most of his young life with, a man silhouetted in the doorway by the lights of fires and family and fear, a man whose mirth was slipping away in the coldness of realisation. Joe’s finger tightened on the trigger. He felt the heavy thud of the hammer against a lead slug reverberate through his arm and the deafening roar that crashed around his ears. And he watched the last word that Aaron said dying on his lips.
This is fiction inspired by facts as they are known and by Ian Jones’ masterful Fatal Friendship. It of course does not claim to be truth. It seems to me that the more you know, the more the killing of Aaron seems elusive and this is speculation about some of the how, rather than the why, Joe came to be standing at Devils Elbow with a shotgun in his hands. No offence is intended. Warning for language and violent themes…