The iron handcuffs bite against Joe’s sunburnt wrists as he is led along the track toward the granite lockup. Behind him, swaggers Aaron, flanked either side by policemen. He kicks at the dry earth beneath his well-oiled boots, dirtying the hems of Joe’s tweed trousers with a layer of dust.
Joe attempts to turn on Aaron with a scowl, but is prodded in the back by one of the battened officers, his voice stern, “Keep up the pace Byrne!”
When they reach the straw coloured lockup, Joe is halted at the door by a guard who bears a dirty brown moustache. He flashes the two constables a lazy smile and turns to focus on the brass lock, the keys jingling in his sweat laced fingers. Joe sighs as the sun cuts against his tweed clad frame and looks across to the Beechworth Courthouse, which glimmers in the morning heat. The guard pushes open the heavy door and bows, mockingly, toward the darkened entrance. Joe straightens and curls his lip, his pale blue eyes stare coldly at the stocky guard before him, who trembles slightly under Joe’s bullet eyed glare. Joe is pushed onto the step and into the granite walled cell. His eyes fall on a young man who sits, hunched, in the corner, as one of the policemen roughly unfastens the handcuffs from Joe’s wrists.
“Ah, plenty of room in here lads.” Aaron jibes, as the guard closes the heavy door behind them.
The young man looks up; his dark hair spills over his slanted blue eyes, his gaze narrowing as they rest upon Joe’s high undercut heels. Self-consciously he pulls at his muddied sleeves and turns back toward the wall.
Joe looks over at Aaron with a questionable glance, but he merely shrugs his shoulders and turns his attention to a roughly clad drunk who snores loudly in the corner. Joe slides down the granite wall, his heels scraping nosily against the wooden boards as he straightens his back against the brickwork. Joe watches as Aaron stands over the sleeping drunk and peers down into his sun-baked countenance.
Aaron grabs firmly at the man’s collar and shouts excitedly “Get up! Get up! They’re calling you for court!”
The man wakes with a start, and drunkenly attempts to get to his feet, but Aaron shoves him back against the dusty floor and throws his head back, hooting nosily with laughter.
Joe shakes his head in annoyance, “give it a bloody rest would you Aaron.”
Aaron turns on Joe with a glare and leans himself against the warmed granite wall, turning his attention to the dirt beneath his thumbnail. From the corner of his eye, Joe catches the young man studying his dark tweed jacket.
Joe smiles and extends a worn hand, “My names Joe Byrne.”
The boy takes his hand, Joe’s eyes catch on his tattered sleeve, his old fashioned coat crinkling as he shakes Joe’s hand. “I’m Dan Kelly, from Greta.”
Joe nods toward Aaron, “and that flash bugger is my good mate, Aaron Sherritt. We’re both from the Woolshed.”
Aaron looks across to Dan and winks, a smirk dancing on his lips, “we’re a couple of wild Woolshed lads, aint that right Joe?”
Joe rolls his eyes at Aaron’s jab and runs a hand through his hair, which is tangled with sweat as the small granite holding cell is baked in the hot February sun.
As Dan stretches his legs against the timbered floor, Joe’s eyes fall upon the furrowed and warned edges of Dan’s boots. His eyes flick back to his own, which glisten with a layer of shoe polish.
“I’m sorry for staring before.” Dan begins, “It’s just, you do not appear to be the type of cove who regularly visits holding cells.”
From the other side of the cell Aaron scoffs loudly, “looks like a bleeding school master doesn’t he?”
Joe’s pale blue eyes glower at Aaron, “would you shut your bloody mouth?”
He turns back to Dan. “Just last year I served six months with hard labour up in Beechworth Gaol.” Joe pauses and flicks a hand toward Aaron, “Because that idjit wanted to try his hand at butchering.”
Dan’s countenance softens, “what got you in here this time?”
Joe sighs, as the burdening realisation of another prison sentence flashes in his mind. His eyes trail along the timbered boards under his hands, “assaulting a Chinaman.”
“Assault!” Aaron splutters. “That yellow bastard deserved everything he got. Him and his breed could have killed us Joe!”
Joe punches his fist against the floor, anger flashing through him like lightening. “And you could have killed him! Where would that have left us Aaron? We’d be swinging from some godforsaken rope!”
Aaron bites his lip and stares, sullenly, at the tops of his dirt crusted boots. Joe curses as the heat within the cell builds; he removes his jacket and folds it beside him, the silver chain of his fob watch catches on the dusty stream of light that shines through the iron grille.
Joe glances toward Dan, “how did a quiet lad like yourself end up in this miserable place?”
Dan clears his throat and smiles sorrowfully, “I swapped saddles with a man named Roberts in Benalla.”
Joe winks, as his fingers hook around his watch chain, “was this Roberts fellow aware you were swapping saddles?”
Dan’s mouth curves into a smile, he attempts to stifle a laugh, “aye.” Joe watches as Dan reaches a hand into his ragged breast pocket and pulls out a crumbled bit of paper, “I still have a receipt for the damn thing too.”
Joe takes it from him and smooths the paper against his thigh, his brow furrows as he reads the copperplate signatures, ‘D. Kelly’ ‘R. Roberts’. Carefully, Joe folds the receipt and hands it back to Dan.
“Keep this safe old man” Joe smiles, “this is your ticket out of here.”
Dan nods appreciatively and slides the paper back into his pocket.
“If Aaron and myself are as lucky as you, what would you say to a round or two up here in town at the Vine Hotel? No one can resist a smile from Julia, eh Aaron?” Joe flashes.
Dan smiles as the rattle of keys echo from outside. Joe watches as the door is pulled ajar, a beam of summer light streams into the shadowed cell.
“Stand up Kelly.” The officer begins sternly, “you’re wanted for court.”
Dan’s trouser hems slip across the wooded boards as he moves toward the handcuff wielding policeman, winking at Joe as his writs are tightly clasped, before he is escorted out of the granite lockup.
Joe listens as their footsteps grow fainter, and smiles at the friendship that has just been bound.