The lion is out of sorts. It's probably the smoke more than the human hubbub or the seesawing concertina music making it bark that deep and chilling moan and scrape its ribs along the bars of its wagon. You have to step close to see it -then hold your breath and heart still. Against every instinct, press your face up to the bars and peer into the ferocious meaty shadows. The bars are chipped and jungle-coloured, far too fragile-looking, with damp lion-fluff sticking to them. Balls of dusty lion-moult drift over the floor, too, among the odd bullock shin and lion dropping, and the lion pads through this muck with a fierce thin-hipped precision. Controlled panic. It hacks its moaning cough, it paces, it rubs its skin raw, but its paws never touch bone or turd.
From the pub's verandah he can catch a glimpse of the lion each time they throw another branch on the bonfire.
Now its tension has spread to the camel and four circus ponies. And to Mirth, dear Mirth, twitching and stamping on her tether in the saplings behind the inn. A mangy old lion, but not often seen in these parts -rare enough to keep Jane Jones giggling at the idea of it all the way through their polka. Giggling, and prodding him to see if he's real. Pulling his beard.
When she brought him his ham and eggs this morning he'd asked how old she was and given her his revolvers to look at.
'Sixteen,'she said, sighting along a Colt. 'Although couldn't I pass for eighteen at least?'
'Still a boy myself under the whiskers; he said. Dancing just now, the curious springiness of her young sapling back bending against his hand.
'What a sweet touch, stealing a circus!' she said. Well, it was. What an extra treat for the prisoners, something to tell their grandchildren in the next century! How he'd turned on a circus for them as well as free drink and games of cards and the hop, step and jump competition (which he, sportingly handicapped by his holstered Colts -and fatigued by a night's hard riding -had allowed Jack McManus, the blacksmith's offsider, to win by eighteen inches), and his genial demonstration of crack shooting and, above all, now, the dancing to the concertina against the joyful flames of the bonfire.
Not that the circus owner hadn't been surprised and reluctant to be bailed up with sleep still in his eyes on a Sunday morning in his caravan on the Benalla Road.
'You bloody mad bushman! I'll set my lion on you!'
He just laughed. He couldn't take seriously a sleep-ruffled codger with a red-arsed monkey on his shoulder.The Great Orlando!
'Look sharp, or I'll tickle you up with this.' He pointed one of the revolvers. Mirth was already skittish from the lion and the monkey and rank things glaring from cages, but even with no sleep he'd felt relaxed and resolved back then at eight o'clock with the dawn's dew still laying the dust and his plans smoothly unfolding. One, Aaron just shot dead, as arranged. Two, the Police Special from Benalla therefore coming for them, as arranged. Three, the line torn up to send the train to hell, as arranged. Four, the Benalla banks thus unprotected, as arranged. Five, the townspeople all rounded up in the Glenrowan Inn, with drinks on them, as arranged. And they had a few more little arrangements up their sleeves. No wonder the monkey shot him spiteful looks; the circus was a bonus. When Mirth shied and snorted he reined her into a pirouette worthy of the ring.
'You should sign me up,'he told the circus owner. 'I'm Ned Kelly: