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By BRIAN W. COOKSON, in the
Sydney "Sunday Times."
Sergeant Steele, formerly of the Victorian Police Force who died a few days ago at high bank of the Ovens River, at Wan- garatta, after several years' peaceful private life, was, as the world now knows, the means of bringing to the gallows the most desperate, the most dreaded, and most successful, bush- ranger chieftain who ever defied society – Ned Kelly. Steele and his capable troopers, bushmen all, had not been invited to witness, or assist in, the last act of the great tragedy that, be-
ginning at the culpable incapacity of a young constable in 1878, was rung down amid the rattle of rifle-fire and the glare of the flames that destroyed
the Glenrowan Inn, and, with it, the
bodies of two of the gang – Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, the third, Joe Byrne having already been shot dead. There had been no official invitation. But
early in the course of the desperate and badly-bungled battle around the old inn, Steele and his Wangaratta men were apprised by the sound of the distant firing of what was in progress. A wild gallop of ten miles put them in the thick of the fight, and from that struggle the cool, capable, and fearless Steele emerged the hero of it all.
It was my privilege recently to spend some pleasant hours with the ex-sergeant in the pretty home in which he spent his later days. And one evening after dinner he told me the story of the battle of Glenrowan as it has never been told yet. But the story was told in confidence. In reply to a sugges- tion afterwards that it was too good to keep, and that it should be published, Steele remarked with a quiet smile, that the publication must wait until he himself had crossed into the Great Beyond. The death of the sergeant a few days ago has removed the only obstacle to the publication of what is up to now an untold story of the
deepest interest and of absolute correctness.
To look at "the man who shot Ned Kelly" that evening, as he sat in his
easy chair, was to cause wonder. The
clear bright eyes, clean-cut featues, and lofty forehead might have belonged to a prince of finance or a professor of mathematics. There was no suggestion of age about him – nothing but alertness, shrewd capacity and resource.
On the big dining table lay some grim relics of the strenuous struggle in which the ex-sergeant had taken so large a part– a double-barrelled shot gun, aged and rusty, and a dirty, crescent-shaped leather bag, with
shoulder straps, were prominent among them.
Steele picked up the old gun, and examined it curiously.
"Was that the one you used?" I asked.
"That's the weapon. Don't look much," does it? And this old bag – see that big stain along the front? That's blood. That bag, nearly full of car- tridges, was on Ned Kelly when he fell. That is his blood. I have tried to wash it off, but it won't move. I think
we'll put these things away; they don't look pretty."
They did not, as a matter of fact.
But there was a weird fascination about them. All the same it was a re-
lief when they were back in the cupboard.
"And now for the story," said the
ex-sergeant, making himself
"There was always between Ned Kelly and me a fierce sort of antagonism – what you might call a vendetta. We frequently exchanged tidings during the last 12 months of his outlawry and his messages were always in the nature of ferocious threats. The last one was to this effect: It came a few weeks after the Wombat murders, and made the outlaws fear- some and desperate:– Tell that ——— Steele that if he is in this country an- other month I'll shoot him, make him into soup, and make his ——— pals, G and Z (mentioning two other police officials) drink it! Tell him he can't escape, and that I'll get him if I have to come and pull him out of his hiding place with my bare hands! I'll serve him worse than Kennedy."
(Kennedy was a police sergeant who was shot by the Kellys in the Wombat Ranges, and who was killed by Ned Kelly's orders as he lay wounded and pleaded to be allowed to see his wife, and children before he died.)
"My reply to the man who brought that message – he had it from Mrs. C. – a well-known sympathiser with the gang – was that he could let Kelly know that I was beginning to believe that, as many people said, I was the only man in the force he was afraid of and
that I was confident that I would be the end of him yet.
"I always had an idea that I would win that vendetta of ours.
"For a long time my share, and the share of my men in the Kelly hunt,
was not large. The authorities, influenced no doubt in Melboune, preferred
to send out after the outlaws parties
of young policemen quite unused to the rigors of outdoor life, totally un- acquainted with bushcraft, and every way unsuited to tracking down des- perate men who knew their way about the rock-bound fastnesses and their retreats as well by night as the dweller in the city area knows his way home by day. The officers placed in
charge of these forlorn hopes were just
as ill-qualified to lead them as the men were to be led. And one and all
after the Wombat tragedy seemed to suffer from scare. Most of them would
run at the sight of a solitary horse-
"I made an offer before the Wombat
butchery that, if accepted, would, I believe, have prevented that unhappy slaughter, and have brought the whole gang to a much earlier end. I offered to organise a small party of strong, active men, well used to hardships, and acquainted with the most difficult of the Kelly country-men who could follow any tracks, go without food or sleep, and who could be relied upon to keep cool and shoot straight in the case of an encounter. The offer was turned down. I had knowledge after- wards – indeed Ned Kelly told me himself – that he had been terrified when he heard of my suggestion and that nothing had given him more re-
lief than the certain information, ob-
tained through some of Hart's friends at Wangaratta, that it had been de-
"I don't want to boast – I never boasted in my life – but I state plaus- ible fact when I say that the only chance of putting an end to the gang unless its members committed some such folly as that of locking them- selves up in the Glenrowan Hotel and getting drunk – was by entrusting the pursuit to shrewd, capable men who
would be as much at home as the Kellys themselves. I don't think any- one will question that."
"By the way," I interposed, "I had a long talk with old Mrs. Jones, who had the Glenrowan Inn at the time, a few days ago. She told me that all four of the outlaws could have got away easily, but that three of them persisted in get- ting drunk on her small stock of
brandy, and singing 'Kelly Gang' songs,
"Ned told me so, too. He said he could easily have got away during the attack. That he did ride away once, but came back to see it through with his mates. I know that that was true. And I now believe that it was with
Ned Kelly's consent, if not at his sug- gestion that as he declared before he died
that Curnow was let out to save the special train.
"But the authorities would not hear of my suggestion, and the weary hunt went on, the outlaws doing as they pleased – sticking up police stations, banks, and entire towns – and laughing at all the futile efforts made to catch them. I took but a small part in that hunt. It seemed as though I was not
wanted. But I always looked after a
chance, and on the night of attack on Glenrowan I suddenly realised that it
had come. That night as I was looking
over the horses in the stables, I heard the faint sound of shooting. At first a few irregular shots that I took
no notice of, supposing it to be someone
after 'possums in the ranges. Then I came the muffled crash of a distant volley – the first volley that the police fired at the hotel, now full of people,
"There was no mistaking that noise!
'Turn out boys! The Kellys are down
the line! Come there; hurry, if you don't want to be too late: Lively, the
rifles and revolvers! Come along!'
"'It seemed only a few seconds, be-
cause the men were all as keen as I,
before we were in the saddle and off.
Down the road and on to the railway line, down the line, between the metals as last as we could ride. It was
dark, and cold, but fine, and always
ahead of us, urging, hurrying us, re- sounded, amongst the hoof strokes on
the sleepers, louder and louder as we
left the miles behind, the rattle of rifle shots, now singly, now in twos and threes.
"The Kellys were at bay at last! Not a a man of us doubted it.
"It was a wild ride, that. Time after
time first one horse and then another would stumble. None of them fell,
"'Here's someone coming! Look
out!' said one of the troopers warily.
"We were ready for him when the rider approaching us, with the clatter of utmost speed, loomed into view.
"Who goes there? Quick!
"Bracken, police constable," came the almost breathless answer. ''The
Kellys are in the Glenrowan Inn, surrounded by police! Hurry? I was coming for you!'
"I don't remember much of the rest
of that ten-mile gallop in the dark –
don't remember even where we left the
railway and the main road – except that it was after we had distinctly seen the flashes of the police rifles.
"All that I do remember is finding
myself on the ground, a small tree on my left, and my men disposed around in the best positions possible. Then I had time to think.
"The hotel was surrounded by police and black trackers, who kept up a con- tinuous firing at the hotel building. It
was a futile, as well as cruel, business,
because the place was full of the Kellys' prisoners as anyone could tell by the awful screams. I stopped as much of the shooting as I could and did none myself except to let go a couple of revolver shots at two of the
bushrangers who walked on to the ver- andah with their armor on and fired at
the police. I knew about this armor, and it was that knowledge that was Ned Kelly's downfall.
"The firing went on all night. Some of the people from the hotel did get away, but they had to run fearful risks of being shot by the police and trackers some of whom, crazy with excitement, would have blazed away at anything they saw. There seemed to be no system, no organisation or direction about the attack. It was all fearfully bungled. A determined rush by a few trusty men would have settled
the whole business. This was suggested but turned down because of the
likelihood of lives being lost. There was not much chance of that. And anyway, it was war, and lives were being lost in the hotel – the lives of non-combatants. But the officer in charge had to have his way.
"All that night I did little. I was
waiting for Ned, principally. I wanted
to make sure of him; and I had a kind of inspiration that I should see him before it was all over.
"Now, as I told you, I knew about the armor that the outlaws were wear- ing that night –for the first and last time, and I knew that a bullet would have to be most correctly aimed to disable one of them. Anyone who has shot in the dark knows how difficult
it is to pick up the sights of a rifle,
even with something light in front of the object aimed at. It might have been possible to have hit one of the outlaws in the head through the slot in the headpiece that they used to see through, but it would have been mighty uncertain at night with the man moving.
" I had thought all this over before, many a time. I one day remembered
haying read the story of how a notorious American outlaw, who for a long time had appeared to lead a charmed
life, but eventually been shot dead by the brother of a man he had murdered, and who had used, not a rifle, but a double-barrelled gun, double loaded with buckshot. Also, I remembered
reading somewhere that it was the practice to use shotguns and buckshot against train robbers in the States.
"Buckshot is not known here. But the big leaden pellets known as "swan
drops" are. And I laid in a stock of
these. Oh the night of the battle, as I
lay waiting for an opportunity to do
something useful, that old gun that I have just put away – it was new then – was lying by my side, well charged with the little bullets.
"It was dawn when a fresh outbreak of firing, accompanied by cries and shouts, announced some new develop- ment in the proceedings, the firing having for some time slackened
"Looking towards the house, I saw in the dim grey light a spectral sort of figure that looked human, as to its clothes, but altogether inhuman as to its shape and general appearance. It came forward slowly, peppered by all
who saw it, and firing back from what
appeared to be a big revolver, held tightly against the breast. Regarding not at all the heavy fire that was di- rected towards it from all quarters, the strange figure, enveloped in a huge overcoat, strode slowly on.
"I had already recognised the unac- customed sound of metallic impact of bullets upon iron, and whilst the men in front of me were yelling, "Look out!' 'It's the devil'.' "You can't kill it!" and things like that, I realised that at last my chance was coming. Because the big, weird figure was coming straight for me!
"'Was it fate!' I wondered. 'Was this Ned, come to settle the affair of our vendetta in person?'
"I will not deny that I got a bit excited, or that I felt a creepy feeling about the roots of my hair. It was a cold morning, and I was chilled with the long night of it. I know I shivered when I saw that ghostly apparition stand behind the lower part of a fallen tree, and quietly proceed to take pot shots at two or three of us with the queer-looking weapon that it carried. Once this weapon ran empty, and the spectre calmly reloaded it from the bag that was over its shoulders. Then it started to shoot again.
"I fired at the headpiece with my revolver, but the mark was small, and my hand was not quite steady, and I do not know if I hit the thing at all – certainly I did not hit the slit in the top of it that I aimed at. But the man in the headpiece took no notice except to take steady aim at me and fire again. I felt the breath of the bullet. I tried another pistol shot, but just
aimed at the main bulk of the figure. I heard the ball strike the iron armor, and that was all. There were three or
four shooting at the apparition, but
with no effect at all, though it was close to us.
"Then, in the gathering daylight, I saw my chance. The tree trunk be-
hind which Ned Kelly was standing – I was now certain that I had to do with
that redoubtable chieftain himself –
rose in a sloping fashion from the ground, and at its upper extremity left an open space beneath of about 2ft.
"In the growing light of the dawn I noticed, beneath the tree trank, the outlaw's legs. They were plainly vis- ible, and unprotected by armor.
" 'I win, Ned,' was the fierce thought that surged through me as I raised the shot-gun, lying over on my left side to do it.
"I was as though I had spoken aloud. For at that instant I heard the outlaw make an exclamation inside his great clumsy helmet, and when I put my fingers on the triggers of the gun he was taking a very careful aim at me.
" 'Would he disable me before I could fire?'
"This was the one thought I had. It all passed like lightning. Instinctively I rolled over a little – just as he fired – and missed. Then, half raising myself, I fired the right barrel of my gun point blank under the log – straight at his legs. I heard him give an exclamation as though of pain, and waited a second to see if be would fall. But he stood firm, and leaning against the log for support, prepared to take aim again.
"I fired the left barrel as quickly as I knew how, and prepared to dodge be- hind the tree on my left, and fight the matter out with my revolver. But there was no need. No sooner had the smoke of the gun cleared away than
I saw the outlaw's pistol hand drop. He staggered, and then, with a cry of "I'm done for!" that sounded strange and hollow in the cylindrical iron hel- met, fell with a crash behind the
"Three or four rushed to him. I was the
the first to reach him, and to lift the helmet off.
"'So, I've got you at last, Ned' as his eyes met mine.
"Yes; you've done for me" he moaned. "Don't let them hurt me!"
"I will say that for Ned Kelly" said the sergeant in conclusion, "he was a brave man, and a generous one, and he and his had provocation at the out- set of the trouble. I know that he bit- terly regretted the tragedy at Wombat, but he used to plead that the gang had no intention of killing any of the po- lice – that they had only acted in self defence when they fired, and that in both encounters hostilities were opened by the other side. Well, it was a des- perate predicament for them to be in. and I for one, am not at this distant date, going to sit in judgment on what happened."
"But you, yourself Mr. Steele, would have acted just as Kennedy and Lonergan
did – you'd not have surrendered?"
"In that case,", was the quiet reply,
"I should not have been here to talk about these things to-night."