The story below is a piece of historical fiction, written from the perspective of Ned Kelly- an Australian folk hero and bushranger of Irish background who was caught by the authorities and hung in Melbourne Jail in 1880. My object was a mouse and my setting was a secret laboratory. I have an interest in Australia’s colonial history and wanted my setting to reflect those times when the European settlers pushed into- for them- what was the wild and unknown frontier. I built the story around two very strong images. The first was inspired by my teaching of Australian Gothic short stories. I had a clear image of a still waterhole at night when the stars were so bright in their reflection on the water, that it appeared as if the waterhole was a carpet of stars. My other image was of a mouse. when I was living in the bush a few years ago I opened a draw and startled a native mouse- an antechinus– who had a nest. She meticulously moved every leaf to a new place and took her babies from the draw on her back, one by one. I thought it would be interesting to put the mouse in the cell with Ned at the end, and contrast the images of freedom for the mouse who could simply slip out through the bars, with the captivity of man who would never know freedom again. I was also going through my ‘punctuate dialogue like Tim Winton‘ phase. I spent a long time editing this story and trying to ‘show not tell’, especially when the troopers come to the house to find Ned’s sister Kate alone.
The Kelly home stood solid, defiant, pressed square against the earth. On two sides the bush and ghost gums were pushed back and a newly completed post and rail corral held two wild horses, stamping and scared by the wood smoke of the hearth fire. They shook the grey dust from their manes and snorted angry breath which fogged in the late afternoon light. Ned considered the work he had ahead to break them in and smiled. A challenge, true, but he was more than capable. His last three horses were being sold in the city to a cash buyer; a racehorse trainer for the Melbourne cup. His sister Kate was inside waiting for him. It had been a long day and he wanted stew. He needed whisky.
During the day it was impossible to see the other wooden structure. The slab timbers had been silvered by the sun and the small mud brick chimney was fashioned from the very earth on which it stood. Behind a clump of grey green cork trees and partially dug into the hillside, it simply was not there. Accessed through a half-door, everything was orderly. A crudely fashioned copper still sat central and was flanked by the two stolen rum barrels which gave the Kelly family whisky its amber body and a sweetness that almost compensated for the gut stripping character of the liquor. In another corner sat a smoky glass flask filled with black liquid opium tincture; something Ned had learnt to make during his time on the goldfields. The only light source was a small tallow box that hung from the ceiling.
Kate was pleased to have Ned home. No woman liked to be left alone for long out here, on the tattered edge of the colony, where there was little familiar and much to fear from the outback. When the tired sun sank over the ridge that night, the wild horse’s hooves had masked the sound of the mounted troopers approaching. When the heavy boots creaked upon the landing, Ned barely had time to slip away. The whisky jug was still on the table when the first trooper threw open the front door. Kate tried to compose herself.
I’m Fitzpatrick. This is Collins. Where’s your brother?
I don’t know.
We’re here to investigate a case of horse theft.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
We think you do.
4th November, 1880
Melbourne jail is bitterly cold and full of broken men. I hear them sobbing and I refuse to become one of them. The infinite blue sky seemed thin enough to rip apart as they marched me inside and delivered me to this miserable cell. When the door clanked home it frightened a small native mouse that had made a nest under the cot. I sat and watched her move her nest, leaf by dry leaf, meticulous. She was small enough to slip under the cell door, and reminded me that I was no longer free. I watched as she returned, timid but determined, and emerged again from under the bed with two small native mouse pups clinging to her brown fur. She reminded me of the time when our mother took you on her back and waded across the fast flooded Grafton River. I’m not even sure she knew how to swim; our mother was nothing if not brave. I need you to be brave now.
Can you explain how you come by those two horses?
My brother Dan caught them. They’re brumbys from the goldfields.
Stop lying and pour us some of that illegal liquor. Your pretty neck could hang for that.
Fitzpatrick stepped closer to Kate. In the firelight she could see the yellow white of his teeth. He slowly rubbed a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger and traced his finger across her shaking hand as she poured out two mugs of whisky. She tried not to turn her head to look for Ned but she couldn’t help it, and twice glanced towards the back door.
Fitzpatrick made a silent motion to Collins, who grabbed Kate roughly and put his hand over her mouth. Ned had forgotten to extinguish the small guttering candle in the still and it made a thin line of muted light which cut through the darkness. Fitzpatrick’s pistol was up, but he stumbled, across the unfamiliar yard. Kate thrashed free from Collins and yelled for Ned to run.
But Ned was not the kind to run. Bullets from the trooper’s gun peppered the barrels and glass and the still exploded in a wash of wasted whisky. Ned had his own pistol drawn as he emerged through the shadow between the hut and the square silhouette of his attacker. In the night the orange flash and smoke of gunfire ended the trooper’s life, and when Collins rushed forward, he went down in a similar arc of gunfire.
The wild horses shied in the night and Kate fell to her knees. She knew there would be no justice for her family.
10th November, 1880
Do you remember when we first came here? The whole country looked like a muted canvas of yellow grass, fine grey sand and smooth granite. You won’t remember life before, and in many ways you are lucky. I thought we would be free here, to live, to work, to make a life for ourselves. Oh Kate, do you remember when we first walked to the waterhole in the dark? The stars were so bright and the black water so still that the reflection of stars spread out like a carpet of sparkling light at our feet? My life is spread out before me now, but it is lead dark and bleak. I want you to remember me as a just man, not as the murderer I’ve been painted. Remember me where the wild horses run. Look after our mother.
Tomorrow I hang. Such is life.