There is a peculiar tendency among many males of the age where they straddle the divide between boyhood and manhood, to flock together and behave in as reckless a manner as they can muster. There seems to be some sort of perverse thrill for these in-betweeners in pursuit of great risks as if it somehow proves their masculinity, if not their imperviousness. So it had been in the district of Greta with a gang of that class who dubbed themselves “The Greta Mob”.
The emblems of the Greta Mob were flashy, often ill-fitting, clothes if they could be afforded; a red sash around the waist; short cut coats; flared trousers; high-heeled boots; and a hat cocked over one eye, with the elastic chinstrap held under the nose when not riding a horse. The look was a rural approximation of the larrikin style favoured by the “push” gangs of the cities. These youths swore like infantrymen and were fond of loitering in public as well as smoking and drinking when they could muster the coin for it.
There was no definitive membership to the gang; it was a rather amorphous, ever-changing roster of local ruffians, most of whom were from different branches of the same family tree. Though the most consistently spotted members were Tom Lloyd and his cousins Jack Lloyd and Dan Kelly, the rest would drop in and out as their schedules permitted. Despite their love for bunking off, farm life in this rough place was demanding, and none of the Greta Mob were thoughtless enough to leave their parents completely in the lurch when there was serious harvesting and maintenance to do on the farm. Most members of the group were direct relatives of the Kellys either through the deceased patriarch John Kelly, or the fiesty matriarch Ellen Quinn. Over the course of their brief reign over the streets of Greta and surrounds, they even brought a young jockey from Wangaratta into the fold – namely, one Steve Hart, who was bandy-legged and spoke slowly, as if he were slightly drunk.
A particularly notorious habit lifted from the street gangs of Melbourne and Sydney was a penchant for the most vile and vulgar language, and the urge to direct it deliberately at the most respectable looking passer-by to get a reaction out of them. It was not uncommon for a lady to cross their paths and be greatly offended by the uttering of a few “damns” and “bloodys” among lascivious suggestions, and for her indignant husband to subsequently step in to threaten the larrikins with a thrashing. This only served to encourage them to wait for the most easily-ruffled looking people to pass by then let fly with the most vulgar things they could imagine – and it seemed their imagination for vulgarity was boundless. It was a competition among themselves to see how far they could push people before things turned physical and someone left with bruises (or worse).
Where the country lads differed from their metropolitan counterparts, apart from their hesitation to use violence, was in the way they amused themselves. While the “pushes” enjoyed physical assault, robbery, vandalism and loitering with malicious intent, the Greta Mob preferred to knock back cheap booze, flirt with girls and show off their horse riding. Tom Lloyd was a devil for the drink and was known to get himself into a state when he had money to squander on Irish whiskey. Steve Hart, on the other hand, despite being a lightweight, would knock back drink like it was about to spoil and remain sober and alert, while his companions would be drunk as newts. Dan Kelly called him “the man with the iron stomach”.
The more senior members of the community – those respectable citizens whose wealth bought them admiration from certain quarters, and who were referred to by some as the “Squattocracy” – looked down upon these clownishly attired teens as an obnoxious nuisance that required police intervention. It did not sit well with them when the police informed them that it was not permissable to arrest a bunch of boys when they had not actually committed a crime.
On this particular day, the group – in this case, consisting of Tom Lloyd, Jack Lloyd, Dan Kelly, Joe Ryan and Steve Hart – had gathered near the railway line in Wangaratta on a lazy Sunday afternoon, away from the judgemental gaze of squatters and their police lackeys.
Steve was the odd one out, with the Lloyds and Ryan all being cousins of Dan Kelly. Whereas young Dan was stout and short, the Lloyds tall and athletic, Joe Ryan was slim and had delicate features, friendly eyes and wavy brown hair. His face was narrow, with high cheeks and a long nose, and he had a conspicuous double-lip that meant he spoke little and had a tendency of averting his gaze when he laughed or smiled.
Tom Lloyd was, as usual, asserting dominance over the group, speaking louder than the others, and often over the top of them as well. His smooth face made him seem much younger than the rest of his body suggested. His jaw was adorned with the wispy beginnings of a curly brown beard, and his moustache was downy and fine, framing the corners of his full-lipped mouth. Jack Lloyd, by comparison, was much fuller-faced and broadly built. Both Lloyds were reasonably well-dressed and groomed, though Jack appeared to be wearing a crocheted scarf around his waist instead of a proper sash like the others, excepting Dan.
Dan Kelly, barely into his teen years, had the high cheekbones, thin lips and heavy-lidded eyes that proved he had Quinn blood. He was in the awkward state of adolescence where he still hadn’t grown into his limbs, lending him a gangly appearance underneath the voluminous rags he wore. His long, raven-black hair was slicked back under a porkpie hat, and his sack coat was fastened at his breast by the one remaining button. His clothes were worn out hand-me-downs from his older brothers, and as such were extremely baggy and barely held together. The trousers were held up by a length of rope, which Dan would sometimes hide under a vermilion sash that he had bought with money earned doing odd jobs such as helping their neighbour Brickey Williamson split railings, though he did not wear it on this occasion.
In a stark contrast to all of the others, Steve Hart wore well-fitting, fashionable clothes, including a pair of Chelsea Boots and spurs. It was clear that his family could afford to buy decent clothing, and Steve was never conscious of this except when other members of the Greta Mob would make fun of his privilege. The only one that didn’t attack him was Dan, whose friendship was what brought Steve into the group in the first place. The only thing that drew more derision from the other members of the mob more than Steve’s comparably privileged lifestyle, was his tendencies to brag, or to recite dubious information gathered by hearsay as proven fact.
So, after the usual banter over bottles of lemonade, and the odd pipe of tobacco, Steve Hart began bragging about his riding abilities again, drawing attention to his successes in the Benalla handicap.
“I’ll bet you a pound that I can jump clear over the railway gate,” said Steve.
The others laughed mockingly.
“Go on then,” said Jack Lloyd.
Steve, without a further word, mounted his bay gelding, which he had named Setanta (but the others inventively referred to as “Steve’s horse”), and rode back a few lengths from the gate. At once he galloped the horse full speed towards the gate and, in one graceful leap, it bounded over the steel gate and landed on the other side. Setanta did not stumble or falter; it was a perfect synergy between horse and rider.
The other members of the mob stood and cheered. Dan swaggered forth with affected confidence, and tilted his hat forward until it was essentially balanced on his forehead.
“Nicely done, Stevey, but even I can do that.”
Dan mounted his own horse, a flea-bitten nag called Tess, which had previously belonged to his uncle Jimmy Quinn, as testified by the Q in an oval brand on her shoulder. Unlike Setanta, Tess was not in the best condition, and her loose shoes clacked noisily, rattling around on their nails as she walked. Like Steve, Dan got a run up and sent Tess hurtling towards the gate. She jumped and sailed over, but not so gracefully. As her hind legs passed over the gate, her hooves clipped the top edge, with the left shoe snagging and pulling partially away from the hoof. When she landed there was a painful snort and she stumbled, unable to properly plant her foot.
Half the mob cheered, the other half laughed derisively as the horse grew distressed by the discomfort from the injury. A slight pang of panic struck Dan and he jumped out of the saddle, attempting to guide the limping horse clear of the track by the reins. He looked at the horse’s feet and saw the shoe on the rear left was yanked partly away, with bent nails causing what appeared to be a crack in the hoof.
“Nice jump, Danny,” Tom Lloyd called out with a mocking tone.
Dan jabbed his thumb up at his cousin; “get fucked, Lloyd.”
After some strained efforts to settle the animal long enough to examine the damage, they ascertained that the hoof was cracked by the knock when one of the nails had been bent. It was not a major injury, but it would cause problems, and as the hoof was so tender, Tess continued to jerk around when she tried to stand still.
“Can you just push the shoe back up?” asked Jack Lloyd. It was explained to him in coarse terms that this was not a viable solution.
“Stay here. It’s not far for me to go home, so I’ll grab some tools and come back. That shoe needs to come off,” said Steve.
“Make it quick,” said Tom. Steve merely rolled his eyes before spurring Setanta on towards the family’s selection.
“Why the hell were you riding with loose shoes?” Tom asked Dan.
“Uncle Jimmy was meant to come and fix them up on Friday but instead he got stuck into a bottle of whiskey and spent the entirety of yesterday flat on his back in a dark room,” Dan replied.
“Why don’t you get a proper farrier to do it?” Joe Ryan asked.
“Do I look like I have money for a farrier?”
“Maybe your Ma could pay him in other ways?” Jack said with a leer and a wink. At once Dan swung a fist into Jack’s cheek, sending him spinning, stunned, to the ground. This caused Tom to break out in a peal of laughter, which unsettled Tess and set her to jerking around again.
In a remarkably short time, Steve returned with a rasp and a hammer, and the offending shoe was removed. By then the Lloyds and Joe Ryan had already gone home and the sun was beginning the last leg of its trajectory for the day.
Once the shoe was off, Tess was still uncomfortable, but far more relaxed. The tenderness of her unshod foot meant that she moved with an awkward, lame gait. All the same, Dan slumped down and buried his face in his hands. Steve sat next to him and snatched up a stick, with which he began tracing shapes in the dirt.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asked.
Dan looked up with tears welling in his eyes. “I’m worried about the horse. What am I going to do if she’s lame now? Uncle Jimmy is probably just going to shoot her, and then I’ll get a flogging from Ma.”
“It’s not that bad,” said Steve, “I tell you what we’ll do. You bring her to my place and we’ll fix her up properly. We have a little smithy at home where we do our own shoeing. We’ll get her sorted.”
Dan agreed to the proposition, quietly thankful he didn’t have to go all the way back to Greta with a lame horse and explain himself. The pair stood up and began guiding their horses down the road by their reins.
“I’ve never been to your place before,” said Dan.
“You never asked,” Steve replied.
“I bet it’s a lot nicer than where I live.”
“Don’t say that. I’m sure your place is perfectly fine.”
“You’d only say that if you’ve never been there.”
“Alright,” said Steve, “I’ll visit your place next time then.”
Dan went quiet.
“Is that alright?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, I suppose. It’s nothing to write home about though.”
“I don’t want to send a bloody postcard, I just want to visit my mate.”
Dan smiled. Being members of the Greta Mob together was one thing, but to have someone like Steve to call your mate was rare for Dan. It was nice to know that there were people in the world that would associate with him that he wasn’t related to.
“Sure thing, mate,” said Dan.