The rain belted down hard in the dark of night as Maggie Skillion and Kate Kelly attempted to guide their cart back to Maggie’s selection in Greta. In the back, under an oilskin tarpaulin, were supplies that should have lasted the family for at least a couple of weeks – flour, yeast, salted beef and the like. The pair had been in Benalla attending the circuit court where their mother Ellen, Maggie’s husband Bill, and their neighbour Brickey Williamson were undergoing their preliminary trial for an incident that took place almost exactly a month before, wherein Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick had been injured at the Kelly selection. The result seemed to be a foregone conclusion, though the sisters had hoped for leniency at least for their mother who was nursing a month-old infant. The girls were used to disappointment but somehow this felt heavier on their hearts than before. Now not only were they without their matriarch, Maggie was without her husband and her children without their father. Then on top of it all their brothers Ned and Dan had retreated to the bush to avoid arrest leaving nobody at home to protect them. The girls had to rely on their wild uncle Jimmy Quinn and he was far from a prime caregiver.
Though Maggie had asked Kate many times to explain what happened to Constable Fitzpatrick when he had visited to execute a warrant against Dan on that fateful April evening, she never seemed to get a straight answer. The trooper had claimed that Ellen struck him with a shovel and Ned shot him in the wrist, but Maggie knew better than just about anyone that such actions would not have been taken without some form of provocation. After all, how many police had been to the Kelly home to make an arrest over the years and never got so much as a scratch? She had never met Fitzpatrick herself, only heard of him by reputation. To her mind he was no different that a hundred other young constables with newfound powers and an indecent eagerness to play with them.
The darkness had set in far quicker than anticipated that evening, driven onwards like a rampaging bull by massive storm clouds. Maggie and Kate found themselves unfamiliar in familiar surrounds as they approached Winton. The light dresses they wore to look respectable in court were hardly suited for such lashings of rain, and very quickly they found themselves soaked through with their clothes sticking to their skin, and their elegantly coiffured hair limp and heavy with water.
“Where are we going!” Kate asked her sister, almost shouting to be heard over the sound of the rain pelting the cart.
Maggie screamed in frustration, “I don’t know, I can’t bloody well see in this darkness!”
Frustrated, Maggie guided the cart to the side of the road. She hopped down into the mud, besmirching her fine dress. She stomped into the road and strained her eyes, gazing into the gloom. It was of no use. There was nothing remarkable about the area that could provide a useful landmark; no building by the roadside with a light in the window to at least provide directions or shelter until the rain had died down.
Resigned to being stranded, the sisters took a seat on a log at the side of the road. They unhitched the horse and allowed her to chew on the grass at the roadside. Kate trembled relentlessly. Though the darkness hid it, her fingertips and lips were starting to take on a blue tinge. Maggie’s joints ached in the cold and the pair huddled together for warmth. Maggie felt like crying. This had been one of the worst days in memory and now it was looking like they would be stranded here all night in the freezing cold.
They had been there barely a half hour when they saw light in the gloom. As it came nearer it was clear that it was light from four bull’s eye lanterns illuminating the road for a group of horsemen. As they approached Maggie scrutinised their silhouettes. These men were dressed in police issue cloaks, yet one seemed not to be wearing a full uniform.
The plainclothes officer was the first to speak. His voice had a rich Irish brogue, “Ladies, what seems to be the problem?”
Maggie recognised the voice, but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. “We’re stuck and we can’t find our way home for the darkness,” she said.
“You poor things, we must see you home safely,” said the Irishman, raising his lantern close to his face. The light caught the edges of his face, revealing the smooth features and well-groomed facial hair of Detective Ward of Beechworth. He removed a flask of whiskey from his coat and offered it to the sisters. After a pause Kate accepted and took a healthy swig. The whiskey burnt a path down to her stomach and she immediately felt warmer. Maggie refused to drink. She cast her eye over the remainder of the quartet but could only recognise the outline of Senior-Constable Strahan – a burly man with a mighty beard, a heavy brow and high cheekbones that gave his eyes a deep-set appearance.
“Would you permit us to escort you home, ladies?” Ward asked. Maggie was wary but relented. After all, she reasoned, Ned and Dan are safely away in the Wombat Ranges awaiting word of the trial. Ward promptly assigned the two constables at his rear to accompany the sisters home while he and Senior-Constable Strahan continued on to their original destination.
Kate and Maggie once more hitched the horse to the cart and began to move. The two constables took up positions flanking them. The journey was a quiet one with nobody prepared to be the first to speak.
Finally, after what seemed an interminable stretch, Maggie saw the light in her own window. Uncle Jimmy had taken her siblings Grace, Jack and Ellie to look after them there along with her own children, Jim and Ellen. She had stipulated to Jimmy that no liquor was to pass through her door, but she knew that if he wanted to drink nobody would be able to stop him. She tried not to think about it as she took her leave of the policemen.
The cart was driven up to the homestead and the sisters climbed down. Maggie prepared to unhitch the horse and instructed Kate to ask their uncle to help bring the supplies inside.
When Kate entered, the little ones were asleep – Maggie’s children were in their own bed, while the siblings were asleep in Maggie’s bed. Uncle Jimmy was by the fire. In his hand was a hunk of bread from a loaf Maggie had made that morning. Obscured by the chair leg was a bottle of rum. Jimmy looked up and smiled at Kate.
“How is it with yer ma?” Jimmy asked.
“They’re keeping her locked up until they can have a trial,” replied Kate. Jimmy nodded and looked into the fire.
“Bad luck, little sister,” Jimmy muttered to himself.
“Can you help bring in the goods from the cart, Uncle?”
Jimmy got up from his seat and shuffled to the door. Kate thought she saw him wipe away a tear as he passed her.
Unbeknownst to the family, a few blocks away at the Kelly selection the very same police that had escorted the stranded girls home were setting up a stakeout, hoping that the brothers would visit to receive the news of the result of the trial. It would be a long, cold and fruitless night only made bearable by the frequent consumption of whiskey.
The following morning was grey like the day before. Maggie could barely walk as her joints had swollen painfully in the cold. Her breath condensed as she hobbled to the fireplace to get a pot of tea on the boil. By the door her uncle sat with his back to the wall, fast asleep and snoring loudly with the bottle of rum, now empty, on the floor beside him. Kate had taken up a spot in front of the fire, curled up in the foetal position and smothered in blankets.
Maggie paused and thought to herself. She contemplated how things had changed. She could not have known that this was merely the humble beginnings of a sequence of events that would see her entire world torn apart.