by Mary Gaunt (1861-1942)
After braving the dual peril of floods and bushrangers, rural women face a moral dilemma. Gaunt’s short story, “Quits”, was first published in Windsor Magazine in Dec 1898 and reprinted in The Broad Arrow Standard in February1899.
The rain was coming down in torrents, and in the gathering darkness it was not easy to see far. One or two currajong trees and some shrubs loomed out with indistinct outlines, and close at hand in the garden beds the drowned jonquils and wall flowers and violets were beaten flat into the mud. In truth it was a miserable evening, and inside the little sitting-room, with is easy-chairs, open piano, and bright fire, looked wonderfully cosy and comfortable.
Two women stood peering out into the rain and mist.
“Come along, Kitty dear,” said the younger, “light the lamp and let us have tea. It is no good waiting for Harry.”
The door opened and in came a maid-servant with a smiling Irish face.
“Av ye plaze, m’a’am, will ye be afther havin’ tay? Patsy O’Donnell says ’tisn’t the laste bit av good in the world waitin’ for the masther, for the creek’s comin’ down a banker, an’ ’tis at Boolan he’ll have to stop till it goes down again.”
“Oh, Nora!” Kitty Russell spoke as reproachfully as if it were the girl’s fault; “the creek a banker? I must put on my cloak and see for myself.”
“Well, it’s a horrid, uncomfortable thing to do,” said her sister-in-law resignedly, “but I suppose I must come and look after you.”
The creek was certainly a banker. This morning the banks had stood ten feet above the level of the water, and now here was the water up to them, above them, lapping gently against the feet of those who had come down to look at it. Out in the middle of the stream it was a raging torrent, tearing along and lashing itself into a fury of brown-white foam when it met any opposition. A fallen tree had swept right across it, and piling themselves against it were other broken branches and a couple of woolly things that looked like sheep – indeed, the two station hands who had come down from the hut and were standing looking up stream said they were dead sheep, and that there would be more presently. Kitty clutched her cloak tighter and drew it closer round her to keep out the cold and the rain.
“I wish Harry were home,” she sighed for the twentieth time.
It almost seemed as if the foremost rider heard them, for in a moment he had raised his right arm and ridden straight towards them.
Kitty stood still as though fascinated, though the pistol was not directed at her but at the man beside her.
“Throw up your hands,” came the order.
Up went his hands above his head, and his companions followed suit.
“All righ, boss, don’t shoot. We know when to cave in.”
The man on horseback swore an oath that intimate he rather hoped they did, and if they didn’t he had some little persuaders handy.
“Dog,” said he, “you take them coves back to the hut. Blue Charlie can take the horses an’ give ’em a good square meal, poor beggars. Jim an’ me’ll escort the ladies.”
Nettie caught her sister-in-law’s arm.
“You’d better be careful,” she said boldly. “My brother is watching us.”
“Now, lady,” said the leader, laughing, “none of that skite. We know well enough the boss is at Boolan, an’ ain’t likely to get back, or maybe we shouldn’t be here. I’m Pete Aitken the Night-Owl, who maybe you hearn tell on, an’ this here is Slim Jim, my mate.”
The two women, holding each other’s hands, looked round helplessly. The swirling creek was behind them, the overflowing waters were lapping round their very feet now, the rain was coming down harder than ever, the darkness was falling, and the two men, the only ones they could look to for protection, had gone back to the hut apparently contentedly enough.
Slim Jim came close up to them, pushing his hat on to the back of his head. His eyes looked honest and blue, and he had rather a kindly face than otherwise, with a big, fair beard and a fringe of yellow hair that came down on to his forehead.
“Don’t be afeard,” he said. “We don’t want to touch a hair of your head. But we must have some tucker and some of them flimsies of your man’s to carry on with.”
The women looked at him doubtfully and then at his companion. The sight of him was certainly not reassuring, though he had put on a grin intended to charm.
“I suppose,” said Kitty, hesitating, “we’d better go back.”
News spreads fast. On the verandah the cook met them, her eyes full of tears, and Nora the housemaid was raging.
“If them galoots at the hut had the spunk av a mouse,” she began.
“There, Nora, there,” interrupted her mistress, “never mind, it can’t be helped. Get these – these gentlemen some tea. When you have got all you want you won’t stay long, will you?” she asked.
“Oh, no, we won’t stop long. Just a bit of a rest an’ a good tuck in’s all we want, I guess we’ll go when the rain’s let up a bit.”
Kitty looked outside into the night. Judging by the outlook there, they would keep their unwelcome guests for an indefinite period.
“If them galoots in the hut––” began Nora again, but the Night-Owl laid a threatening hand on his pistol, and her mistress silenced her with a look.
“We’ll have to make the best of it, Nora,” she said with a faint smile.
“There’s a brave lady,” said Slim Jim, as if it were a great relief to see a return to cheerfulness; “an’ we’ll treat you like ladies, we will, indeed.”
He was so earnest they could but smile; only Nora sniffed disdainfully.
The Night-Owl lolled back in the easiest chair, Slim Jim stood by the fire looking askance at the women, the servants brought in a meal, the other two men strolled in, and the room was filled with the odour of food, and the small of damp, not overclean, clothing.
On seeing the other two come in Nora stole outside. The Night-Owl divined her errand and laughed uproariously.
“Thinks to rout the boys outside, does she?” he said. “Them boys is right enough. They know blamed well if they was to go agin us by so much as a wink, the Night-Owl ’ud skin ’em alive next time he come along this way.”
And hen he pushed aside the tea that had been offered him and called for brandy, and Kitty, very unwillingly, had to yield up the keys of the sideboard. Slim Jim saw her fear.
“I’ll shoot the first man dares lay a finger on you,” he said reassuringly.
“Now, Mrs. Russell,” said the Night-Owl, when he had finished his meal, “we’ll trouble you to hand over the cash.”
Kitty pointed out the key of the writing-table drawers.
“Leave me a little,” she begged.
Ten pounds all in silver shillings looked a great deal more than it really was, and the four men clustered round and began eagerly squabbling over it.
The Night=Owl emptied it out on to the dining-room table.
“Lots of time,” said he, waving his pistol; “the floods is out, there ain’t no one to disturb us, an’ we’ll divide the blanky thing on the square.”
But division did not bring content.
“You must have more money ’an this,” said the leader, turning to Kitty.
“No, I haven’t.”
The Night-Owl put his hand on her shoulder and she shrank away trembling.
“You let her alone,” said Slim Jim; “I won’t have her touched. All we want is hard cash.”
“We ain’t come across much yet,” grumbled Dog Dawney; “and we hearn Russell of Gnotuk was rich.”
“You head wrong, then,” said Nettie quickly. “Look round and see for yourselves if we have any more money.”
“There’s ways,” growled the evil-looking leader, and the women shivered with terror. What might they not do?
“We’ll just look round a bit,” said Slim Jim, with the air of a man who pours oil on the troubled waters. “There might be some hidden about the place, you know, an’ we’d find it.”
“There isn’t any hidden about the place,” said Kitty earnestly. “Look for yourselves, look everywhere. You can keep anything you find.”
“Don’t trouble yourself about that, said the Night-Owl significantly; “we ain’t shy. An’ if we don’t find suthin’ good,” he added, pausing at the bedroom door, “it’ll be the worse for you.”
“Don’t be afeard,” said Slim Jim’s soothing voice, “I won’t let him touch you.”
The flood waters were up in the garden now, and the bushrangers evidently considered themselves fairly safe, for they proceeded to light all the lamps and candles they could find. Then they roamed round the house like wantonly mischievous schoolboys, destroying everything they could find no use for. Every now and then the thinking women could hear Slim Jim remonstrating, and his remonstrances being received with shouts of laughter. They pulled down the curtains in Kitty’s bedroom, they threw all the bedclothes into the middle of the floor, they pulled out the contents of the chest of drawers and wardrobe, and they arrayed themselves in the clothes belonging to the absent master of the house; the Night-Owl even adorned his head with Kitty’s new winter hat, a marvel of ostrich plumes and velvet that had arrived from Melbourne only the week before.
Slim Jim came in more than once to tell them not to be afraid and to apologise for the conduct of his mates.
“I can’t help it, ma’am,” he said, “short of shootin’, there’s no stoppin’ ’em.”
“Oh, why do you do it? why do you do it?” sighed Kitty.
He echoed the sigh.
“Why do I do it? Well, it ain’t so easy to get clear as you might think.”
He went back to his comrades, and Nora came in softly with her finger on her lip.
“The masther’s comin’, ma’am.”
Kitty sprang to her feet.
“Hush, ma’am, for the love av God! I seed him mysel’ t’other side av the creek in the moonlight.”
“He can’t get across,” moaned Kitty, “and if he did they might kill him.”
“He’ll see there’s something wrong, though,” said Nettie, “with the place lighted up like this, and perhaps he’ll bring help.”
“He’s comin’ acrost,” said Nora, “sure as death he’s comin’ acrost.”
Kitty made for the door.
“He’ll be crowned,” she cried, “he’ll be drowned!”
“Don’t make a fuss, Kitty, don’t make a fuss. It will be so much better if he can get here quietly.”
“He’ll be drowned, I tell you, he must be drowned if he tries to cross anywhere but at the ford five miles up. What does it matter if they do know he is here. Oh, Harry! Harry!” and his wife was heading down the garden, careless that in some places the water was already up to her knees. The other tow followed her.
The moon only threw fitful gleams through the broken clouds, and at first they could see nothing, only hear the roar of the waters as they swept all before them. Nettie felt Kitty was right; nothing could live that attempted to cross that raging water.
“I saw the masther,” reiterated Nora above the raging of the torrent and the sobbing of the win and rain; “I saw him riding along the bank.”
“And there’s his horse now,” cried his siter.
But the saddle was empty.
“Oh, where is he? Where is he?” moaned his wife. “He must have been mad to try and cross here.”
The rain stopped suddenly, the clouds parted, the moon sailed out into a clear parch of sky and flooded all the downed and dreary country with her light.
“There, there, there’s the masther!” cried Nora. “Praise be to the Howly Mother!”
But Kitty Russell could hardly echo her handmaiden’s thankfulness.
He was there, certainly a man in his shirt-sleeves clinging for dear life to the trunk of the big tree that was jambed across the stream; but the raging water was between them, and it threatened every moment to sweep him from his precarious hold.
His wife dropped down on her knees in the water, stretched out her arms towards him, and called aloud his name; but the wind caught the words and blew them away. It was hopeless to think of making him hear against such a blast. The emotional Irish girl wrung her hands and shrieked in sympathy, and Nettie stood silent and hopeless beside her. The man turned his head and saw them, and Kitty heard her own name brought faintly down on the wild wind.
“Call the men, Nettie, call the men! He sees us! He’s asking us to help him!”
But the men refused to stir. They were perfectly civil, very sympathetic, very sorry; but it was as much as their lives were worth to leave that hut. The Night-Owl had sworn he would shoot on sight, and no questions asked, if he caught either of them outside the hut before next morning, and they knew well enough the Night-Owl was a man of his word. They liked the boss; he was a good man, but, anyhow, his life on that tree was worth more than theirs should the Night-Owl catch them on the banks of the creek.
Nettie knew her sister would be waiting, counting the moment like hours, and she rushed back.
“Kitty, Kitty, they won’t stir.”
Kitty turned a white, despairing face towards her in the moonlight.
“The Night-Owl promised to shoot them if they stirred before morning,” gasped out Nettie, breathless from running and brutally candid in her haste, “and, anyway, they say it is hopeless to get a man off that tree. He’ll have to hang on till the floods go down.”
“The tree is giving now! Nettie, Nettie! It’s giving now! If the water rolls it over, it will drown him!”
The moon went under a cloud, down came the rain again, and the whole scene was blotted out from their straining eyes.
Nettie flew up to the house, right up to the men she dreaded, and begged them to let the men from the hut come to their aid.
“I’ll be blowed if I do,” growled the Night-Owl. “Let them coves down an’ that’ll make three agin us, let alone you women. No, I’m d––d if I do!”
The girl looked at him with horrified eyes. Nothing so terrible had ever come into her life before. It seemed as if she were standing apart, looking on at the misery of those other two, the big brother she had looked up to all her life, and the wife whose world he was.
Slim Jim saw the misery on her face.
“Don’t take on so,” he said kindly. “We’ll be gone soon, an’ you can all get him off then.”
“He’ll be dead! He’ll be drowned! The tree is rolling over!”
He turned to his mate.
“I’m going along to see what I can do,” he said. “I ain’t on for drownin’ the boss, whatever you coves may be. Is there any rope?” he asked Nettie.
She got a coil out of the storeroom and he took it from her and followed her down the garden.
The water was rising rapidly, and Mrs. Russell and Nora had been forced to retreat a little way, but when the moon came out again they saw that the tree trunk was still in its place and the man was still clinging to it.
Kitty raised her white, anxious face.
“Only you?” she said, “only you?”
“Yes,” said Slim Jim humbly, “but I’ll do my best.”
“And we three can help,” said Nettie, feigning a confidence she did not feel.
The bushranger looked at the raging creek doubtfully, then he picked up a piece of wood as heavy as he could throw, tied on to it the end of the coil of rope, and waded through the water up the creek. The women followed him in silence – was he not their only hope?
When next the moon came out they saw that the man clinging to the tree had just managed to clamber astride it, and was hanging on to an upstanding branch. It looked perilously unsafe, and as if the least touch would turn the whole thing over; but Harry Russell seemed to understand that they were doing their best for him, and was prepared to help all he could.
Whenever the moon came out Slim Jim flung the leg as far as he could, and they watched the current bear it down towards the tree. Again and again the log missed it, and again and again he drew it back and tried once more. The watchers grew wild with anxiety and there grew up in them a very friendly feeling for this man, who, though he was outwardly their enemy, was doing his very best for them, and they forgot that but for him and his mates they would have been in no such plight.
Again and again Slim Jim threw his log into the creek, and again and again he drew it out, till the sweat poured from his face in spite of the cold, wintry night; but at last all four gave a simultaneous shout of triumph, for by the cold beams of the moon they saw the log with the rope attached drifting down the very centre of the current straight for the half submerged tree.
Then there was a long wait. It seemed as if the moon was never coming out again, and Kitty began to feel she had lived through an hundred years. Was the moon never coming out again? And before it did come the man holding the rope gave a shout of joy, a shout as genuine as if he had not been helping to raid her house and home.
He’s got it! he’s got it! Lord Almighty! he’s got it!’ and he started to run down the creek again.
The rest was simple enough, and almost before she could realise what was happening, her husband, dripping, half drowned, and more than half insensible, was in her arms again.
Then and not till then did their companion remember that he was an outlaw and carried his life in his hands. He drew his pistol and stood over the man over whom his wife was inarticulately rejoicing.
“Bail up,” he said somewhat sullenly.
Harry Russell looked at him in surprise.
“Is that who you are?” he said. “Well, you’ve save my life , anyhow. I head the Night-Owl’s gang had got the place. You – you?” he turned to his wife anxiously.
“Oh, they’re all right,” growled Slim Jim. “I aren’t goin’ to have them touched, an’ I ain’t goin’ to harm you, neighter, if you come along quiet.”
“If it wasn’t for you I should be at the bottom of the creek,” said Russell, taking his wife’s cold little hand in his, “and I’m infinitely obliged to you, whoever you may be.”
Then they made for the brilliantly lighted dining-room, and Slim Jim silently pointed to an arm-chair beside the fire. Russell looked at his wringing wet clothes, but the bushranger paid no attention.
“You sit there an’ don’t stir,” said he, “an’ the women’d better not go near you. If they do, or if you stir, well, if I don’t shoot, the Night-Owl will. We’ll be gone soon, sir,” he added civilly enough, “an’ we can’t afford to chuck away our chances.”
Russell could hardly help smiling as he stretched himself over the bright fire.
“At least give me a nip,” said he, and Slim Jim poured him out a generous bumper of his own brandy.
Then he left them to themselves, and Nora strolled outside into the garden again, while Kitty and her sister-in-law, wearied out with excitement and anxiety, sat down on the sofa and listened as people in a dream to the men wrangling in the next room. They were evidently discussing the arrival of Russell, the best way to get more money out of him, and the necessity for clearing out as soon as possible. If he knew they were here, others probably did, and the police would not long allow the floods to be a bar. Still, they evidently thought themselves safe for some little time, and Russell himself, though he could hear every word they said through the thin partition, was actually so weary he fell asleep while they were discussing his fate. He knew what they did not, that the police were already warned and would be at Gnotuk before morning.
After a little Nora came back again, dripping wet and trailing pools of water on to the carpet. Her lips were blue and her teeth were chattering, but her eyes were dancing.
“There’s somebody out there, sure,” she whispered. “They’ve got wind av ut. There’s a brave bhoy creepin’ along by the shed there, an’––”
Mrs. Russell sprang to her feet and Nora promptly put her hand on her face.
“There,” she said aloud, “the pigs is all right, and so’s the ram. My word! but ’tis he have the will av his own, an’ ’tis in the draring-room ye’ll have to be keepin’ him if the wathers rise any higher.”
The bushrangers were coming back, and Nora’s information was evidently for their benefit.
“Mrs. Russell,” said the Night-Owl, looking at the sleeping man, “we haven’t near enough money. We’ve got a gun and some cartridges, but we must have some more of the ready, or know the reason why.”
Kitty shivered and trembled. How near was this unknown man?
“You’ve looked everywhere,” she said; “you must see for yourselves I have nothing more.”
“You’ve got to get it, then,” said the Night-Owl, “or––” and he raised his pistol and pointed it direct at Russell, sleeping as calmly as if his house were not in the possession of the worst gang that ever hid in the hills of the North-Eastern district.
Kitty thought his doom was sealed, and gave a shriek that went wailing out into the night air and startled her husband into wakefulness. Slim Jim started forward, and then, to the surprise of everyone, a shot rang out and buried itself in the wall just above the Night-Owl’s head.
The effect was instantaneous. In a moment Slim Jim had dashed at the lamp and put it out. There was a splashing in the water outside, and the four bushrangers scuttled like frightened rabbits out of the room, followed by Russell, wide awake now.
Where they went to Kitty hardly troubled, for she heard her husband’s voice.
“That’s right, Sells, let your men surround the house and we’ve got ’em now like rats in a trap.”
“Hark to ’em,” said Nora under her breath, “the spunk an ’em, an’ them on’y two, for the love av God!”
The splashing outside grew louder; the bushrangers were evidently thinking discretion the better part of valour. And then there came some shouts and cries, and then, after what seemed an interminable time to the waiting women, the master’s voice called to them to light up, for they had got one of the beggars, though the others had made good their escape in the rain and darkness.
Nora lighted the lamp, and there entered Harry Russell and a tall, grave, middle-aged man in the uniform of a sergeant of the Mounted Police, dragging between them, ragged, wet, dilapidated and miserable, the bushranger they had known as Slim Jim.
Russell’s dismay was quite comical when the light fell upon the face of his prisoner.
“By the living Jingo!” he cried perplexedly, “what am I to do now?”
“We’d have got the lot,” said the trooper calmly, “if I could only have waited a little.” The rest’ll be up in a couple of hours. I thought I’d better come along and keep an eye open, in case you needed me.”
“Lucky for me you did,” said Russell gratefully; “but that wasn’t this chap’s fault.”
“He’ll have the chance of meditating on his good behaviour,” said the sergeant.
“Oh, but Harry, he was good to us!” put in his wife.
“What’s the penalty for this little amusement, sergeant?”
“Robbery under arms?” said the sergeant laconically – he was a man of few words – “hanging.”
“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” and Kitty burst out crying, whether from relief at their escape, or pity for the bushranger, she could hardly have told.
“I was a gen’lman to you, Mrs. Russell,” put in Slim Jim wistful.
“Yes, you were, you were, Make it as easy for him as you can, sergeant. If it hadn’t been for him my husband wouldn’t have been here now, and I don’t know what would have become of all of us. He kept the rest in order.”
“He had no business here at all,” said the sergeant grimly. “We’ve taken him red-handed, and I guess he’ll have to suffer for the company he keeps.”
They took him outside, and Nettie turned to her sister-in-law.
“We can’t allow that man to hang, Kitty. Whatever should we have done without him? Harry mustn’t interfere, and the policeman isn’t in a fit state to judge. I’m going to take the matter into my own hands. Now, all you’ve got to do is to lend me Nora and see after supper yourself, so she won’t be missed.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Give him a chance if you can, Annette. My own mare’s in the stable.”
They put Slim Jim in an outhouse, tied his hands and feet, and left him there in the darkness to meditate on his fate. The stones under him were cold and damp; he was bruised all over, and he was so weary he almost felt it a relief that an end had been put to his career, however summarily. What would become of him? He had certainly saved Russell’s life, he had done what he could for the women under the circumstances; but, after all, what was that in the eye of the law? He had joined himself to the Night-Owl. Could anything he had done since count against that? He doubted it. And James Brock bitterly cursed the day he had ever had anything to do with Pete Aitken.
Somebody was fumbling with the stable door––somebody who was afraid of making a noise; and then it seemed to him he heard the swish of petticoats across the floor.
“Sure, Slim Jim, are ye there?” asked a voice he recognised as that of Nora the housemaid.
“Hush, hush!” said Miss Russell, out of the darkness. Then they paused and lighted a candle, and the two faces stood out in the circle of light. The candle flickered and guttered in the breeze, but it looked to the well-nigh hopeless man as if they meant kindly by him.
“I believe you really did your best for us,” said Nettie Russell. “We all think that, and we don’t like to think of you hanging; so we’ll give you a chance, only for goodness sake don’t tell anyone it was us, and do try and get away from such bad company.”
Slim Jim fairly gasped.
“If we loose you, could you take a horse and get away?”
“My colonial! You try me!”
“Don’t kill anybody,” said Nettie earnestly. “It’s dreadful to think of letting you out to kill anybody.”
“I won’t. I never did ’cept once, an’ that was in fair fight. He might ha’ killed me.”
Nettie blew out the candle now they had taken their bearings.
“Faith, ma’am,” said Nora, “ye’d best be quick. It ’ud be bad for the likes av you to be ketched here. Give me the knife.”
Nettie handed it to her and she went down on her knees and promptly cut the ropes the bound his hands and feet. Slim Jim sprang to his feet.
“Quick!” said Nettie, “quick! There’s a horse at the corner of the stable. Keep along the top of the ridge and the flood won’t hurt you much. And, oh, do be honest for the future.”
“I will, lady, I will, if ever I can get clear of them chaps, I will, an’ I’ll always remember how good you was to me.”
He slipped out of the doorway and was lost to them in the darkness and rain.
At the kitchen door Kitty met them––Kitty, frightened out of her wits at what they had done.
‘Now go back Kitty,” said Nettie, taking things into her own hands. “Nora, get into dry things as soon as possible. I’d do it again if it was to be done. I should never had had any peace if that you man were hanged, and he’ll get away right enough now. They will never know how it was done.”
And they never did, not for certain, though Sergeant Sells, talking matters over with his superior officer, was shrewdly of opinion that the women of the Gnotuk household could have thrown some light on the escape of Slim Jim if they had cared to.
“But,” said he with a sight, “we ain’t got anything to go on; and there really is no accounting for women any way.”
Gaunt, Mary, “Quits” The Broad Arrow Standard, 4 Feb 1899: 3.