The armour had weighed heavily on Joe’s mind, the clouded uncertainty it brought made him feel uneasy. “This bloody armour” Joe had warned, “it’ll bring us nothing but grief and nuisance.” Ned’s armour had been the forerunner for the other three suits, and the long days of bone jarring work that followed, had left Joe deep with bitterness and aching limbs. He had sworn that if he was going to be made, make, and wear, this “God forsaken thing”, then it’d be undertaken properly. For this, Joe had entrusted blacksmith Tom Straughair, who was a close friend of both he and Patsy, to construct his suit and had guided Tom, meticulously, on its design. After watching Dan struggle into the saddle while wearing his apron plate, Joe had instructed Tom to shape his so it slanted slightly. However, this chiselled slant did nothing to aid in his mounting, and instead, Music had become flighty at the resounding scrape of iron, as the armoured weight constricted his movement into the saddle. To counter this, Joe had Tom place two bolts, where a leather cord could be wound around the bolts, and, through the slits in the apron, for easier detachment. The helmet had also been an issue, as it cut, uncomfortably, into his shoulders. In angry haste, Joe had removed it, and flared the bottom of it with a hammer, so it would rest softer on his shoulders. For Ned’s suit, shin plates had been constructed, but given their weight, they kept sliding down his legs. This left both Joe and Dan smirking, “Ned ain’t as clever as he thinks” Dan had whispered….
The February sun burns across Joe’s back as he clamps the iron tongs around the curve of mouldboard, heating it over the crimson coloured coals that line the forge. The familiar calls of Currawongs fill the Woolshed, as they waver amongst the branches of Stringybark that flank the gully.
Wiping a sooty hand over his forehead, Joe buries the twist of iron further into the embers, and shakes the tongs slightly, allowing for an even distribution of heat. He tugs at his white Rob Roy shirt, which is patched with sweat, and releases it from where it is tightly tucked in his tweed trousers.
“Damn this heat!” Joe curses, raking his fingers through the lacing that binds the collar, allowing the fabric to fall open at his chest, exposing Maggie’s silver ring, which glints from its chain.
Relief fills Joe, as the light breeze mingles over his chest, drying the sweat that clings to the ginger strands covering his skin. Next to him, the grumbling of Steve rises above the wheezing of bellows, as he works to pump the air over the coals.
“You think I’m relishing this anymore than you are, young whippet?” Joe inquires, his annoyance thinly veiled.
Steve looks up, his face pink from the heat that presses against them, “well where’s bloody Ned? Why should you and I be kept here doing this?”
Joe’s eyes flick up the ridge to where Ned and Tom Lloyd stand guard, in amongst yellow budded wattle, “him and Lloyd are keeping lookout.”
Steve follows his gaze up along the gully and shrugs, “I just don’t understand why I always get the lousy jobs.”
Joe looks back to Steve, whose sideburns are laced in a veil of coal dust, “Ned’s a bugger for that mate, I agree.” He replies, sorrowfully.
Steve bites at his lip and nods, his hazel eyes glassy, as his arms begin moving the bellows, pumping them backwards and forwards.
Shaking his head, Joe’s gaze falls back to the covering of coals and lifts the heavy sheet of mouldboard out of the forge. The iron glowing a deep red at the end of the tongs. Clasping both hands around the handle, Joe carries the mouldboard over to where Dan is stooped, shaping an iron plate over a green log of Stringybark, the flowing water of Reedy Creek washing over its length, dispersing the sound. Beside him, Tom Straughair stands, guiding Dan on where to best shape the metal.
Joe places the iron onto the log, which hisses noisily, as the residual heat steams against the damp sapling. He straightens his back, sighing heavily as the muscles loosen, and takes a swig from Dan’s bottle of brandy, which rests amongst a layer of discarded tweed jackets. Joe wipes the beads of alcohol that cling to his moustache and looks toward Dan, watching as he shapes the length of metal, the sleeves of his under shirt rolled up around Dan’s broad shoulders. His muscles rippling with each rise and fall of the hammer.
Once the piece of iron is shaped, Tom pats a rough hand on Dan’s back, his dark eyes levelled at Joe, “Joey should be able to guide you now mate, while I heat another board.”
Dan looks up, his dark hair falling about his blue eyes, as he flicks a dirtied hand toward Joe, “what would this stodgy bugger know about shaping iron?” Dan smirks, cheekily, “he didn’t even shape his own.”
Joe makes to jab at Dan with the tongs, as Tom stifles a laugh, “aye, but he watched, and gave enough bloody orders. I’d say old Joe knows plenty.” With narrowed eyes, he watches as Tom saunters over toward Steve, ruffling his hair as he passes him.
“You ready?” Dan motions toward the twist of iron, his face specked with charcoal. Joe nods, skimming a hand, roughly, through his strawberry blonde beard.
Holding the tongs firmly, he braces himself as Dan begins to beat the scorched metal, the ring of the hammer vibrates, achingly, up Joe’s arms.
As Dan works to shape the iron of his face plate, Joe’s gaze catches on the rest of Dan’s armour, which rests against a stump of Eucalyptus. His lips curve into a smile as he notices the two thin side pieces, which match Joe’s own.
“Those side plates Danny”, Joe begins, over the shrill of metal, “they look bloody familiar.”
Dan pauses, slicking his hair back across his forehead as his eyes narrow at Joe, “it’s only common sense to have side plates, anyway, this armour will be the best of the lot.”
“Of course Danny.” Joe winks, rocking back on his boots, his larrikin heels cracking the sandy earth.
When Dan is satisfied with the shape, he drops the hammer, which lands with a dull thud amongst the dying leaves, and picks up the brow plate. Piecing the two together, it is apparent that the brow plate has been over curved, and is too short to reach the sides of the helmet.
Angrily, Dan kicks at the dry earth and curses, his brow furrowed as he mulls the problem over.
“Pass it here old man.” Joe sighs, his hand outstretched. Taking the hammer, Joe beats at the right side of the helmet, curving it closer toward the left.
“That should just about do it.” Joe exclaims, pressing his thumb and index finger firmly against his forehead, attempting to calm the headache that rises.
“Eff it.” Dan replies, wearily, “I need a drink first.”
Joe turns his back, and looks down toward the creek, listening to the echoed curses of Steve, as Dan taunts him with the brandy bottle.
The iron is cold against Joe’s fingers as he turns the helmet around in his hands. Behind him, the crackling of leaves sound. Joe cocks his ear and turns on the log, his gaze falling on Ned, as he edges closer.
“You right mate?” Ned asks, taking a seat beside Joe on the stretch of Stringybark.
“Aye.” Joe mutters, “as right as I can be.”
Ned takes out his pipe and tobacco, “you still grumbling about the bloody armour.”
Joe shifts irritably, “what else can this plan achieve but grief on our part?”
“The traps have caused this Joe, not us…Not me.” Ned sucks on his pipe and exhales, curls of smoke rising from his lips as he talks. “They will not rest until they have us all killed, why should we continue to cower? It will be a great liberation of those innocents suffering in gaol. Like Brady, I will have every policeman gaoled.”
Joe looks back into the disjointed eye slit, blackened by shadow, shuddering as the crack of gunfire reverberates in his mind.