From under the shadowed veranda of Ann Jones’ Inn, the armoured figure of Joe Byrne stands, peering through the disjointed eye slit of his helmet, to the misty darkness before him. Joe’s rifle is flanked at his side, his fingers nervously furling and unfurling around its trigger. Positioned next to him, the silhouettes of Ned, Dan and Steve line the width of veranda, their figures clad in iron.
Joe listens as the heavy crash of excited feet resounds from the clearing, as the police scramble toward the moonlit inn, his eye catching on the shape of one of them as they near the post and rail fence. Joe places his rifle high at his shoulder and waits for Ned’s command.
“Let’s give them a show boys!” cries Ned, taking aim at Superintendent Hare as he lurches his towering frame through the glimmering turnstile gate.
Suddenly, the hush of night is broken by the echo of gunfire, as the outlaws and police exchange volleys. Several shots ring off Joe’s breastplate and helmet, their power like the blows of a sledgehammer, sending him reeling against the span of weatherboard. Joe curses and straightens himself, his oilskin coat heavy at his shoulders as he reloads his rifle. Before he can fire it however, a bullet tears into Joe’s right calf, the pain is immediate, jolting through him like lightning. He tries to steady himself, but his armoured weight sends him sliding down the fragmented wall of the inn.
Dan and Steve hurriedly move to his side, lifting him to his feet, with a resounding cry, “Joe’s been hit!”
Ned turns, his voice echoing from beneath his helmet, “Get around the back!”
The police have formed a wide arc around Ann Jones’ Inn, positioned in amongst the scattering of gumtrees. Trapped amongst flimsy weatherboard, the hostages lay powerless, as the police bullets smash through its walls, showering them with shards of glass and wood.
Moving through the covering of gun smoke, Joe limps his way along the side of the inn, following the distant clang of mouldboards, as the armoured figures of Dan and Steve withdraw into shadowed darkness. Joe grimaces with each painful step, several bullets ricochet off his breastplate, sending him staggering back against the wall of the inn. Joe curses and positions his rifle at eye level, firing several shots as a policeman’s ghostly outline sways from behind the shelter of gumtrees. The bullet splinters through its branch, sending wooden shards raining above the policeman, who drops to the ground for cover.
“This bloody armour” Joe hisses, “I cannot sight my rifle properly!”
Behind him, Ned’s voice sounds through the clearing “fire away you bloody dogs, you can’t hurt us!”
When Joe reaches the shelter of the back of the inn, he leans his armoured frame against the whitewashed weatherboards and attempts to relieve the aching of his wounded calf. Joe lifts it slightly in front of him, but the weight of his armour causes his legs to buckle and sends him sinking into the muddied earth below. Joe’s chest heaves, exhaustedly, against his breastplate, leaving him gulping the stale air trapped inside his helmet. With a muttered curse, Joe removes it and inhales deeply, hungry for the sharp cold air which now fills his lungs, and rakes a hand through his sweat laced hair. Joe twists his right leg from under him, his larrikin heel cutting through the ground, and straightens against the ridged panels at his back. His eyes move down his person and come to rest on the torn, blood soaked tweed at his calf.
“Ah Christ” he groans, as his fingers numbly prize open the fabric, revelling the glistering bullet wound beneath.
Joe tips his head back, the icy foredawn breeze ruffling his beard, and closes his eyes. His hand lifts to his neck and tugs at the knotted scarf, freeing it from beneath his breastplate. The wool is soft against his calloused fingers, reminiscent of the silkiness of her skin.
In his vision, he is taken back four days previous to the last time he saw her… Maggie is standing before him, smiling. Threaded through her fingers is an old crocheted scarf, striped in hues of blue and white, its edges slightly frayed. “It’s one of my favourites” she responds in answer to Joe’s furrowed gaze, “but you need it more than I do”… Her hands soft as she ties the length of scarf around his neck, “even a bold outlaw needs to be kept warm” she teased, her blue eyes sparkling up at him. Joe’s lips graze her forehead in acknowledgment, “aye, it’s beautiful lass”, he lifts his head to hers, kissing her tenderly.
Joe opens his eyes, the sound of gunfire and strangled shouts of police orders rattle through his ears as Maggie’s last words fill his head, “don’t you keep me waiting long, Joseph Byrne.” From inside the inn, the frightened taunts of Dan and Steve resound, mixing with the howls of pain from young Jack Jones as he lay dying, while the blood from Joe’s torn calf slowly seeps into the muddied ground.
“Is that you Joe?” An unknown voice to the right of him quizzes.
Joe turns his head, his eyes come to rest on a tall shadowy figure, moonlight glimmering from the rifle barrel clutched in his hand.
“Yes”, Joe hesitates and stares into the murky blackness, “Is that you Ned? Come here.”
“Come here be damned!” Ned retorts, his helmet dulling the pitch. “What are you doing there? Come with me and load my rifle, I’m cooked.”
Joe twists against the wall. “So am I.” He motions to the bloody tear at his calf with the butt of his revolver, “I think my leg is broke.”
Ned brushes Joe’s grievance aside, “Leg be damned. You got the use of your arms.”
Joe reaches for his helmet, placing it back over his head and cumbersomely stands himself up. The renewed weight sends a sharp jolt up his injured right leg and he curses from the pain.
“Come on load for me” Ned persists. “I’ll pink the buggers.”
Joe limps toward Ned’s armoured outline and takes the rifle from his wounded hand, “Don’t be so excited; the boys’ll hear us and it’ll dishearten them.”
Ned sighs heavily, and looks out across at the police lines, “I’m afraid it’s a case with us this time.”
“Well, it’s your fault.” Joe thrusts the reloaded rifle into Ned’s hand, “I always said this bloody armour would bring us to grief.”
“Don’t you believe it.” Ned flashes, excitedly, “Old Hare is cooked and we’ll soon finish the rest.”
“All that talk aside”, Joe begins solemnly, “we have to get the boys away from here Ned.”
Ned slides his revolver out from his belt and cocks the hammer back, “I’ll see if I can fall a few of the bastards, then we’ll ride the hell out of here.”
He watches as Ned sways out of the breezeway, and staggers his way down past the skillion. Joe turns and clutches the door frame, pulling himself over the step and back into the darkened inn. He leans his weight against the papered walls, dragging his wounded leg over the dusty floorboards beneath, a shiny trail of blood snakes its way along the hall behind him.
Joe shudders at the feel of it, running warm, down the inside of his calf and curses “Christ, I shouldn’t be here.”
As he moves further down the hall, his ears are drawn to the whimpering sound coming from the first bedroom. Joe grips the doors edge and pulls his armoured frame into the doorway, several of the hostages lay, huddled, in the middle of the room. Their silent prayers muffled by the gunfire which smashes and echoes around them. Joe closes his eyes, tears stinging at their corners.
One of the male prisoners looks up from the floor, “please, I beg you, get us out of here.”
Joe punches his fist against the door frame, anger surging through him, mixing with the pain.
“It’s not us that’s stopping you…Jesus! You think you’re the only one that wants to get away? Least when you’re let out you’ll still be bloody breathing…” Joe’s voice trails off with the sickening reality of it all. “You’re better off than we are!” he growls.
Joe continues his way deeper into the inn until he reaches the bar, where Dan and Steve are propped, quivering, against its wooded width.
“We should have cleared long before this.” Joe mutters, pouring himself a glass of brandy as bullets continue to rain about him. He removes his helmet and takes a swig, the amber liquid burns a track down his throat and settles with the nerves at the pit of his stomach.
Joe stretches his useless leg in front of him, allowing himself to slide down the bar, where he lands with a dull thud next to Dan.
Dan nods to Steve, “He thinks he’s been hit…a bullet cracked the top of his armour near his collarbone.”
“I ain’t thinking nothing!” Growls Steve, “check for your goddam self.”
Joe moves himself around to Steve, who carefully pulls back his oilskin coat to display a large bullet dent along the top ridge of his breastplate, purple bruising twists from his shattered collarbone.
“Aye, it’s done some damage alright.” Joe sighs, shaking his head in pity.
Steve leans back against the bar, his jaw clenched in pain.
Dan rests his hand on Steve’s shoulder and turns to Joe, “where the hell is Ned?”
Joe closes his eyes, unable to meet Dan’s heavy gaze and looks toward the calico striped celling, “Listen boys, we’ll be out soon enough. I ain’t dying here, no road…”
Dan looks over at the hostages, who lay, fear stricken, on the floor. “What about that lot? We can’t leave them here to cop our led.”
Joe shakes his head, “Aye, I know”. He rakes a hand through his mattered hair, and takes his helmet, “we have to get the women and children into the skillion, the police aren’t thinking to fire into that.”
Clutching the bar for support, Joe wrenches himself upright, just as a hail of police bullets clatter through the front of the inn. Several ring against his breastplate, knocking him back against the bullet riddled parlour wall.
“Aye!” Joe bellows from beneath his helmet, “Shoot them all you bastards!”
Dan struggles to his feet and turns to Steve who sits hunched, shivering, his hand clutching his shoulder. “You coming to help us Steve?”
Steve kicks at a broken gin bottle in response, and straightens himself against the bar, “what the hell can I do? You might as well shoot me where I am…”
Dan attempts to reply, but Joe cuts him off. “Leave him be. We have to get these people out of here.” Joe nudges Dan with the butt of his revolver, “you tell the dogs to hold their fire, and I’ll see if a few of the men will help me move the women and children out.”
Joe watches as Dan heads to the front door, the clang of his armour resounding with each step. Leaning against the doorframe, he beats the butt of his revolver against his breastplate, his voice echoing from beneath his helmet, “hold your fire! The place is filled with women and children! Stop firing!”
In answer to his pleas for a cease fire, the police fire wildly into the inn, almost with added zeal. Several bullets ricochet off Dan’s helmet, sending him staggering back into the cover of the inn.
From inside his helmet, the strangled curses of Steve resonate in his ears, as Joe limps his way back down the narrow hall to the bedroom.
Joe’s armoured frame fills the doorway, “I need a few of you men to come and help guide the women and children into the safety of the skillion.”
One of them answers as a barrage of police bullets slice through the room, his voice muffled against the floorboards, “get that lot to hold their fire and we will. Until then, how do we know we won’t all be shot to pieces?”
Joe points his revolver at the stretch of man positioned at his feet, and cocks the hammer back. “The women and children need to be moved out of here” Joe begins, his voice shaky, “before they are all killed.”
A second man responds, straightening himself against the peppered wall, “you’ve only got yourself to blame for this…”
For a moment, Joe is taken aback at his boldness, but the guilt is soon replaced with anger, which flashes through him like a torrent. Joe curses and grasps the door frame to steady himself, his voice breaking under his helmet “it’s those bastards out there who are intent on killing you, not us!”
Joe waits for a response, but it does not come. He turns painfully and stagers back up the hall to the bar. Taking his rifle from where it rests, he hurriedly reloads it, cursing as a bullet falls through his numbed fingers and rolls noisily along the floorboards.
Joe slices the rifle barrel through what remains of the window pane, his voice echoing loudly as he takes aim, “damn the lot of you dogs to hell!”
Chocking curls of gun smoke drift through the inn as Joe fires wildly from the window, interchanging between rifle and revolver, the aching of his calf increasing with each frantic pull of the trigger. He curses under the pain and moves across to the bar; leaning against it Joe removes his helmet and lets it fall with a crash amongst the covering of broken glass which lines the floor. Laying his revolver along its timbered breadth, he takes a bottle of whiskey and throws it back; closing his eyes as the familiar burn mellows the pain from his calf. He shoves his hand deeply into his pocket, the packet of poison concealed within rustles enticingly under his touch. Joe takes it from his pocket and runs his fingers over the small brown paper sachet. Visions of Aaron’s lifeless body, sprawled on the floor, flash through his mind. Shaking his head solemnly, he looks to Dan and Steve who sit, propped against the far wall, their faces pale and drawn.
Dan looks up at Joe in a weary half smile, his eyes narrowing as they catch upon Joe’s hand. “You going to use that white stuff?” He mutters.
Joe’s eyes drop to the brown packet concealed within his fingers, and, for a moment, he is lost in the simplicity of it all. The effortlessness it would take to tear the papered corner and dissolve the powder into his whiskey, to end it all, here and now…
“Makes no odds if you do”, Steve begins, “we’re damned anyway.”
Unable to meet Steve’s heavy gaze, Joe turns his back. Reaching into his breast pocket, he takes out a catholic prayer book, the gold plated cross glinting as it catches upon the milky stream of moonlight. With trembling fingers, Joe releases the clasp and opens it, her words piercing his throat. For my sweet birdie, Love always, Maggie. Joe knots his fingers around it, and closes his eyes as his ears catch on an echoing clang from outside. With furrowed brow, Joe listens as the familiar clatter of iron moves through the breezeway.
With a sigh of relief, Joe sweeps the prayer book and poison back into his pockets and turns to Dan and Steve, his countenance softening, “boys have heart, Ned is coming.”
In reply, Steve leans his head back against the wall, and exhales heavily as the prospect of freedom graces his mind…
Resting his larrikin heel on the bar rail, Joe pours himself a whiskey as visions of the Woolshed sweep through his mind. The apron of his armour presses into his raised thigh; Joe lifts it out of the way and raises his glass.
Relief sinking through him, Joe winks at Dan and Steve, “Many a long and happy day still in the bush, boys!” he shouts, knocking the amber liquid back in a single swig.
At the sound of Joe’s voice, a hail of bullets blast through the inn, with one of them tearing into his thigh, knocking him cruelly against the bar, severing his femoral artery. The pain is immediate cutting through him like a knife, Joe attempts to cry out, but no words come. His ears catch on a gushing sound as his eyes flicker down to his apron…a red, bloody stream, flows over the iron plate and pools onto the floor beneath him.
Without time to contemplate it, Joe’s legs buckle, his armoured weight echoes through the inn as he topples to the floor, bright streaks of crimson splashing against the bar.
As his consciousness drifts, Joe stares up at the calico ceiling, visions of Maggie caught within his steely blue eyes…