Avenel, New South Wales, 1865.
‘Get yourself up, Ned!’
Ned Kelly pressed freezing fingers in between his toes. ‘I’m going, Ma. Soon as I’m ready.’ He hugged his knees tightly. Spring mornings were cold in Avenel, the mist and rain sliding through the cracks in their one-room cabin. But Monday mornings were worse. Ned pressed his face into the flour sack pillow and let out a soft groan. At eleven years old, the last place he wanted to be was school.
‘You’ll go now,’ barked his mother. She yanked aside the curtain that hid the children’s beds. The baby was balanced on one hip. ‘I’ll not have children of mine being late for school. You too, Annie.’
Bad tempered and grumbling, Ned pushed to his feet and accepted a thick slice of soda bread smeared with dripping. A glob of fat oozed to the floor and Ned rubbed it into the dirt with his heel.
‘And mind you keep away from the lockup. Da don’t need you two bothering him today.’
There was an icy blast of wind and a couple of wet drips detached themselves from the bark roof and slid down the back of Ned’s shirt. His fury deepened. ‘How’d you know Da don’t want us to come see him?’ he growled.
Annie hauled him outside. ‘Don’t go upsetting Ma,’ she hissed. ‘I don’t want you putting her in a mood.’
Ned shrugged her off. ‘When ain’t she in a mood?’ He set off towards the lockup where their father had been imprisoned for stealing a cow. ‘Seems like she’s always looking to curse us out.’
‘Only because of the baby,’ snapped Annie. ‘And you know it.’
‘Don’t I just,’ agreed Ned with a bitter little laugh. ‘Wailing all night like a stuck calf.’ He leapt across a swollen stream, its waters thick with mud. In the distance the gum trees hovered above a pale morning fog. ‘Baby Grace sure got the temper of the Irish,’ he added proudly.
‘You’ll get whipped by Mr Irving, if you’re late,’ yelled Annie.
Ned stopped. Their common school teacher was smart, fair, but very strict. And Ned was a good student. He didn’t relish the idea of being punished in front of the class. He rubbed his fingers just thinking about the sharp sting of a leather strap across his palms.
‘If we go along the creek we might see where they buried the chestnut stallion.’
Ned hesitated. ‘You believe that?’
Annie shrugged. ‘Don’t see why not. There’s teamsters camped on the sand. Maybe it drowned trying to cross the creek.’ She turned her back and began walking towards the chicken shed. ‘The creek’s so full it would swallow a cart and no-one’d notice.’
Ned hurried after her. ‘Who told you?’
‘The boy from the Royal Mail Hotel?’ scoffed Ned.
‘What’s that mean?’ demanded Annie.
‘Nothing. I just don’t see why he’d be talking to you.’
Annie spun around. ‘Not everyone’s against us, Ned Kelly.’
Ned disagreed. Everyone, it seemed to him, was against his family. Especially the local police who appeared to want to lock up everyone Ned had ever loved. ‘If they are they’ll back down or catch the worst of my fists,’ he growled.
Annie ignored him.
Hughes Creek made its presence known long before Ned saw it, the thunder of floodwater an angry rumble that drowned out his surprised shout. Across the other side of the river, seven year old Dick Shelton was slipping and sliding towards the riverbank like a terrified calf. Ned followed his gaze. Trembling on the edge of a half-submerged log was a brand new straw hat.
Dick scooped up a long stick and stepped onto the flattened end of the log, his eyes fixed on the bobbing straw.
‘Don’t!’ whispered Ned. He cupped his hands around his mouth. ‘Hey!’ he roared. ‘STOP!’ The thunderous waters swallowed his shouts whole.
Dick took a tentative step and the log wobbled dangerously.
‘He’ll fall,’ gasped Annie.
Ned cursed and raced down to the river bank just in time to see Dick’s knees buckle, his arms flailing wildly. He didn’t even hear the splash as the small boy hit the water and disappeared. Ned leaped into the creek after him.
The icy water was as hard as a punch to the gut. Ned fought to the surface and gulped huge breaths, the power of the river terrifying. Up ahead, he glimpsed Dick’s pale face. A broken branch rolled into view and was swept away. Ned cut across the current, his teeth gritted against the pull of water. The river bank seemed to be hurtling past and on its sides there were children watching, their eyes wide and frightened. But Ned wasn’t afraid. He was exhilarated, every nerve tingling, his heart hammering against his ribcage.
The opposite bank swung into sight and Ned spotted calmer water. He kicked out, grabbing at Dick’s arm as he swept within reach. His hands grasped cloth and he hauled with all his might. For a terrifying second, he thought he’d miscalculated as Dick’s weight dunked him under. Then his bare feet scraped against rock and he was washed into shallower water. Coughing and spluttering he scrambled to get purchase, the gravel painfully cutting into his bare feet.
Every muscle was shaking as he dragged Dick onto a narrow sweep of sand. The poor boy looked half drowned. Ned eased him across his shoulders and struggled up the bank. At the top, he turned left and headed towards the Royal Mail Hotel.
The first person to spot him was Dick’s mother. Ned heard Mrs Shelton scream then heavy hands were lifting Dick from his shoulders, two young men carrying the semi-conscious boy up the steps and into the hotel.
‘Get him inside,’ ordered Mrs Shelton.
Ned was ushered into a dimly lit dining room. The smell of stale ale and wood smoke stung his senses. He was shaking so badly that he could hear his teeth chattering. Someone led him in front of a crackling fire. Mud and water dripped in a steady stream onto the carpet and Ned curled his fingers into tight fists. All of a sudden he felt dizzy and sick.
‘Get the lad into a hot bath before he perishes from the cold.’
Ned never saw who issued the order but not long after he was soaking in a porcelain tub, the hot water almost as stinging as the cold. Very gradually, his body stopped shivering and he was able to enjoy the slow feeling of warmth creep across his skin and bury itself deep into his muscles. For Ned, who had never even seen a bath before let alone know the caress of hot water, it was a moment he would cherish.
‘How are you feeling?’ Dick’s father stood at the entrance to the dining room as Ned was led back inside.
Ned glanced down. He was wearing a set of Dick’s old clothes, the shirt so soft it might have been made from the hair of a kitten. ‘Fine thank you, sir.’ He looked up, half defiant, half embarrassed.
‘You wonderful, little miracle,’ cried Mrs Shelton, reappearing behind him. ‘How will we ever thank you, you wonderful, brave boy?’
Ned blushed as Dick’s mother took him by the shoulders and hugged him so tightly it hurt. The wry smile in Mr Shelton’s eyes drew a grin onto Ned’s face.
‘You must be hungry,’ said Mr Shelton kindly. He rested a large fist onto the dark wood of the dining room table. ‘Come. Eat with us, young Kelly.’
Ned slid beside Mr Shelton and stared down at the menu they laid in front of him. His stomach growled.
‘What did you have?’ sighed Annie for the third time.
‘I told you,’ grumbled Ned. ‘Chops and eggs and bacon.’
‘And cocoa,’ added young Jem.
‘I hope you thanked them properly,’ said his mother.
‘Course he did, Ma,’ answered Annie, desperate to keep the happy mood going.
‘But you didn’t accept no favours?’
‘Mr Shelton tried to give me a half crown but I wouldn’t take it,’ declared Ned proudly.
His mother grunted. Ned wasn’t sure if she were approving or disapproving.
‘Best get yourselves off,’ she said suddenly. ‘School don’t stop. Even for heroes. And I should be churning the butter.’
There was something in her tone that made Ned hide a quick smile. And for once he didn’t argue.
At school, they were busy scratching figures onto their chalk boards when Mr Irving stood up abruptly. A few minutes later, he ordered the class to their feet. ‘Mr Shelton is here,’ he announced. ‘I want you all to put down your boards and stay silent. He has something important that he would like to say.’
Ned’s pulse rate soared. He wondered what was about to happen. Had Mr Shelton decided that he was somehow to blame for Dick’s accident?
A large man, Mr Shelton seemed to take up the whole front of the classroom. ‘I am here to thank a young man who very bravely endangered his own life to save that of another,’ he said gravely.
All eyes turned towards Ned.
‘Diving into Hughes Creek was one of the bravest acts …’ he hesitated, visibly moved. ‘Well. Let me just say that my family will be forever grateful.’ He lifted something out of a bulging leather bag. ‘And so it is with our most humble thanks I present Ned Kelly with this gift.’
Someone prodded Ned in the back and he realised that Mr Shelton was waiting.
It was a long walk to the front of the class.
Mr Shelton draped a heavy pile of green across Ned’s arms, the material shimmering like liquid emeralds. Along its edges hung an exquisite gold braid that caught the light. Ned unrolled it slowly. His eyes widened in astonishment. The sash was almost two and a half metres in length.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he breathed. His heart fluttered inside his chest. He thought it might be the most beautiful thing he had ever seen – a treasure that he vowed he would keep forever.
Ned Kelly was wearing the sash when he was captured at the siege of Glenrowan on the 29th June, 1880. It is now on display at the Costume and Pioneer museum in Benalla.
This story was first published in The School Magazine, Orbit, July 2018.