SQ Mag Ed. 8: Fiction
by Cat Sparks
Posted 1 May 2013
A woman and a boy are travelling alone in hostile Australia, seeking their future in service to an unknown benefactor. It can be a dangerous place to be, the Australian bush, the very place to find ruffians and outlaws. Only with a little help from an unusual friend will Juliana and Arthur make it in this foreign land. SY
Juliana Morris was a long way from home and even further from civilisation according to the poorly-sketched map she'd acquired from the Captain of the Mary Elisabeth. Just follow the river windin' all the way to Wharftown, he'd said, which seemed like a reasonable proposition, only there hadn't been any river flowing into the ramshackle port where the captain had set them down. A port so small it didn't even have a name. Shielding her eyes from the sun's harsh glare, she surveyed the pitiful landscape with dismay. Everything was covered in a layer of dust. The inhabitants had a hard-bitten look about them. None of the women she passed would return her smile. Juliana's life in London had been far from luxurious. She hadn't known what to expect of Australia, but somehow she'd expected more than this.
Juliana and her small son Arthur spent a restless night in a cramped and none-too-clean inn one street back from the docks. The Mary Elisabeth and her captain sailed on the morning tide, leaving them both to fend for themselves in a strange, inhospitable land.
With the last of the money advanced by Hayes, she purchased a horse and wagon from a trader who, at least, claimed to have heard of Wharftown and offered a set of vague and garbled directions, which, she had to concede, were better than nothing.
The steady clopping of her horse's hooves on the dusty road did nothing to allay her feelings of isolation. Arthur slept, blissfully ignorant of their plight. She’d been lucky with him, at least. As well-behaved as any boy of five could be expected to be, especially one who had so recently lost his father.
The untimely death of her husband Harold had presented her with limited options. A lack of references—or, in fact, any suitable qualifications at all—prevented her for securing a situation close to home. She would not go into service—she was far too proud for that, which left her with a scattering of foreign options in the London Times. Three separate advertisements sought English governesses in Shanghai, but the thought of being surrounded by foreign faces and foreign ways filled her with terrible unease. That left only Wharftown, New South Wales. Picturing something vaguely pastoral, Juliana elected to endure the long sea voyage. Two well-paid years in the employ of a man called Hayes would see her right. Risky, to be sure, but with few friends in London and no family aside from Harold's stern Protestant parents, Juliana didn’t feel she had much choice.
Once disembarked, she was to make her way to the dubiously named Wharftown to meet this Hayes. His London Times advertisement sought a gentlewoman willing to instruct him in the manners and mores of London high society. It seemed he planned to emigrate to England when his already considerable fortune was more so.
Wharftown was, predictably, supposed to be situated on a river, yet there were no rivers anywhere near the road her horse and wagon were now travelling. How could she possibly have gotten so lost?
As Arthur slept, Juliana fretted at their meagre provisions. All that remained were a couple of small, hard scones given to her by a kindly homesteader the day before, wrapped up in a threadbare square of cotton. The canteen was almost empty, and the horse had not drunk since the homestead. Surely this road leads to a town, she prayed as the horse stumbled onwards.
The road was little more than a dirt track lined with desolate scrub. Strange birds flew overhead and now and then, the crackling hum of the native crickets was interspersed by the sounds of unseen beasts crashing through the undergrowth.
She tried not to think about the beasts. There were wild dogs in this country, she knew, and bears. At every turn, Juliana expected the road to end abruptly, leaving them stranded in the heat, swatting insects from their skin until thirst and fatigue overpowered them. She simply had not been prepared for this impossible climate.
As the wagon rounded yet another scrubby bend, Juliana noted a commotion on the road up ahead. Was that men she saw shimmering in the haze? Fellow travellers who could offer directions and possibly spare a little of their food and water?
She flicked the horse's reins. The animal snorted, as if to say he was already going as fast as he could manage.
But as she neared, Juliana realised her mistake. What had she been thinking? Men on the road. These were clearly bad men. Dangerous men, and she was a woman alone with a child. As the horse approached, she reached inside her valise and drew out two pearl-handled pistols wrapped in oily rag. They had belonged to her mother—God rest her soul—who had instructed her daughter to keep them well maintained, loaded, and ready to fire at all times in case of emergencies.
She nudged Arthur with her elbow. He moaned, wiping the sleep from his eyes with balled fists.
“Quickly, son, hide yourself.” Still half asleep, the boy whimpered, but obeyed, clambering into the covered back of the wagon and crawling under a tarpaulin.
The men were clearly visible now, despite being the same pale, colourless hue as the dirt and scrub. Four of them: three standing around the fourth who lay on his back on the road. The standing men took turns at kicking the fallen one. Juliana balanced the pistols in her lap, gripped the reins tightly, and straightened her posture. Her heart hammered painfully, and not for the first time since setting sail from England, she wished her beloved Harold was still alive.
But Harold was dead, and despite the danger and her fear, she knew she would have to do her best to help the poor wretch on the ground. Juliana touched the small gold crucifix pendant given to her by her grandmother. It was the only Christian thing to do.
The three men stopped their kicking as the wagon slowed.
“Such cowardice,” she said dryly, “three against one. You ruffians ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Three grime-streaked faces stared up at her with a mixture of lust and incredulity. One of them, a broad-shouldered brute with no neck, uttered an ugly sound that chilled her to the bone. Several moments passed before she recognised the noise as laughter.
“Yer a long way from home, little lady,” said the man immediately on his right.
“And yer a real long way from help,” said the third, a skinny man with rodent-like protruding teeth. All three broke into fits of mirth.
Juliana steadied herself by breathing deeply. Carefully, she took the horse's reins in her left hand and felt for one of the pistols with her right.
“And considerate it is of you, too, to chance upon us at a moment when we was sorely in need of transportation,” said the rat-faced man. “You'll be getting down off that wagon now if you know what's good for yer.”
Juliana cocked the pistol and aimed it squarely at the largest man's head. “I shall do nothing of the sort,” she replied.
At that moment, all three men rushed the wagon at once. Juliana fired, managing to graze the largest, but he did not go down. Clutching a bloodied shirt arm, he bellowed with rage. Startled by the gunshot, the exhausted horse reared up on its hind legs and whinnied. Juliana hung on for dear life, swapping the spent pistol with the other one and doing her best to keep a grip upon the reins.
As the horse's hooves hit the ground, the rat-faced man's head appeared beside her. He had clambered up the side of the wagon. There was no time to think. She thrust the pistol into his face and fired. There was a splash of red as his body fell. The horse reared up a second time and charged forward, trampling the large man's body beneath it. Juliana clung on to the reins as the horse cantered out of control.
When the beast had exhausted itself, she looked back over her shoulder to see the third man running down the road in the opposite direction. Her other two attackers lay as dark bundles in the dust.
“Mama?” said a small voice from the back of the wagon.
Juliana shushed her son, then glanced back again to the mess on the road. The horse refused to budge. After making Arthur promise not to move, she jumped down from the wagon and walked back to where three bodies lay.
The rat-faced man no longer had a face at all. The large man was dead, too, his trampled torso too horrible to look upon. Juliana averted her eyes. Her hands shook uncontrollably as she bent down to check on the third man. The one the others had been cruelly kicking. This man was of far smaller stature than the others. He had been badly beaten but she could see his chest rising and falling with regular rhythm.
Juliana knelt beside him on the stony road. The poor wretch was so dirty and blood-splattered that she could not be certain of his age or race. So thin and slight, perhaps little more than a child. His eyes opened as she leant over him. They were large and slanted, yet clear, despite his terrible ordeal.
Definitely foreign. A Chinaman, she presumed. She had never actually encountered one up close before, although she recalled the line of Chinese coolies loading cargo down on the docks, clearly recognisable as such by their bamboo hats and pigtails. Thousands of Chinese had flocked to the Australian goldfields to make their fortune. She had read a little about it in the Times.
Juliana staggered to her feet. Arthur’s pale, curious face was watching her every move.
“Help me. Quickly!” she implored. “I’ll never be able to lift him on my own.”
Arthur did his best, despite his tender age and size. A miniature version of Harold in every way.
The Chinaman weighed almost nothing. Between them, she and Arthur managed to heave him up into the wagon’s covered section. If only they had more water. All she could spare were the few drops she’d managed to dribble through the fellow's blood-caked lips.
“What is your name?” she asked him. No reply. The Chinaman lay, a still and huddled mass, as Juliana coaxed the horse forward. Arthur sat beside her, sucking his finger staring into the wagon's semi-darkness.
After half an hour's travelling, the road forked in two. Juliana’s heart sank. “Well, Arthur, it seems that we are hopelessly lost. Shall we toss a coin to determine which way to turn?”
As she reached for her purse, Arthur let out a startled squeak. The Chinaman opened his eyes.
“That way,” the boy said insistently, pointing to the left. Juliana stared. The Chinaman had not said a word.
“That way!” Arthur repeated, punching the air. Juliana gripped the reins and urged the horse in the direction indicated. Dear God, let there be a settlement along this road, or a homestead, or at the very least, a creek. The horse wouldn’t last much longer without water. If it dropped, the three of them would surely perish.
She was close to the point of exhaustion herself, still shaking from her encounter with the rough men on the road, when Arthur cried out “Look, Mamma—look!”
Up ahead, a structure loomed, half obscured by the blasting heat haze. Closer still, she could see it was a high wooden fence. She clutched her crucifix as the wagon shuddered to a halt. The horse had done its duty and would walk no further.
Behind the fence rose two wooden towers. Men stood atop them carrying rifles.
“Stay here, Arthur.” Juliana dropped the reins and jumped down from the wagon. Shielding her eyes from the harsh sunlight, she squinted up at the towers. Two rifles pointed directly at her heart. Juliana raised her hands above her head.
“There's a man in the wagon. A terribly injured man,” she shouted, in spite of her parched throat.
After a time, the air filled with the rough squeal of wood grinding against wood. A section of the high wall was actually a gate. It swung open and three men stepped through, all carrying rifles trained upon her. All were Chinamen, dressed in loose-fitting black cotton garments and wide-brimmed pointed bamboo hats.
“Gentlemen,” she croaked, “one of your countrymen lies injured in the back of my wagon. Won't you put your weapons away and assist him?”
Nobody moved. Did any of these men speak the Queen’s English? She was about to try and explain it all again when all three cocked their heads in unison. The nearest Chinamen remained standing still, his weapon trained steadily on Juliana. The other two hurried to the back of the wagon, completely ignoring Arthur as he jumped down and ran to his mother's side. The two, both slight of frame themselves, lifted down the injured man. The one holding the rifle kept it trained on Juliana until the others were safely beyond the wall.
Sunlight glinted off the weapon. Sleek and streamlined, she had never seen one quite like it. Not that she had ever shared her mother’s enthusiasm for guns.
“Wait!” cried Juliana as the one with the rifle joined his compatriots in retreating behind the massive gate as it slammed shut. She ran to it and pounded her fists on the wood. There was no reply. “We need food and water,” she croaked. “Don't leave us out here at the mercy of the sun.”
Arthur joined her, hammering his small fists hard until a splinter lodged in his skin and he began to cry. Close to tears herself, she hugged the boy and inspected the wound. “Why, you can barely even see it,” she said as cheerfully as possible. “Mamma will have it fixed in no time.”
She picked him up and carried him to the wagon. “But first, Mamma must find a shady spot for the horse.”
The poor creature’s lips were foamed with spittle. She patted its mane gently, then glared back up at the sentry towers. The guards remained still, their weapons gripped but no longer raised.
In the back of the wagon she found a small saucepan. I helped you and now you will help us. She marched back up to the gate and began to hammer, beating the wood until her whole arm ached. Just as she was about to lose hope completely, a familiar gritty grinding filled the air.
She stood back wearily as the gate swung open. A Chinaman stood before her, his features in shadow, obscured by the wide brim of his hat.
“If you please,” said Juliana, mustering the last of her resolve, “my child and I are in desperate need of water, food, and shelter.”
The man regarded her in silence. More rasping, then the door opened wider, allowing enough space for the passage of a wagon. Juliana moved quickly in case the man changed his mind, grabbing the horse's reins and tugging him forward. She had feared the beast wouldn't budge, but, fortunately, the horse seemed to sense that it would fare better on the far side of the wall.
The Chinaman took the reins. She didn't argue, dropping back instead to check on her son. Arthur sat calmly, legs dangling over the back as he sucked on his splintered finger.
Behind the wooden wall lay a small township—a mining camp, she presumed. Two neat rows of tents formed a corridor on one side. Opposite, several larger wooden structures that might have been barns or sheds. Unfamiliar equipment lay stacked under the shade of crude lean-tos. Three horses stood around a feed trough in a small corral.
The wagon came to an abrupt halt. Juliana lifted Arthur down, then hoisted him on her hip. They were at the mercy of these foreigners now. Arthur buried his face in her hair, but within moments, he was craning his neck in all directions. There was so much to see. The camp was alive with movement. Everyone was engaged in some activity or other. No one remained still for a minute.
Juliana stood as the men unhitched the horse from the wagon and led it to a trough to drink, a small kindness that heartened her somewhat.
A man motioned for her to follow. He led her to a row of tents and pointed to one with its entrance flap hanging loosely open. All the other flaps were tightly laced. She nodded her thanks to his back as he hurried away along the slim alleyway that separated one row of tents from the next.
Inside, the tent was sparsely furnished but clean. Beside the sleeping pallet stood a table. Upon it, a pitcher and an enamel mug. Water! Juliana raced to it, filled the mug, and handed it to Arthur. She held the pitcher up to her lips and quaffed water in great gulps. Warm and stale, it was the best thing she'd ever tasted.
A spasm of pain twisted in her gut. Too much too quickly. She put down the pitcher and snatched the cup from Arthur. Too late—he'd already finished his, but sudden rehydration seemed to have had had no ill effect on the child. He smiled and Juliana realised how lucky they'd been to survive their ordeal on the road.
She'd killed two men today—to save herself and her child, for certain—but killing was still killing. Her hand trembled as she took the cup by the handle. So far, the Chinamen had treated them well. She prayed their kindness would continue.
Juliana sat Arthur on the edge of the pallet and removed his boots and socks. “You need a bath,” she said, ruffling his gritty hair. She pulled back the blanket, checked for insects, and then instructed him to sleep. He fidgeted and protested but already his eyelids drooped with exhaustion. Arthur was asleep within a minute. Juliana felt her own tiredness overtaking her. I'll just put my head down for a moment.
Juliana awoke in darkness. She sat bolt upright, disoriented, wondering where she was until the steady sound of Arthur's breathing both reassured her and reminded her of their predicament. We're in a foreign land amongst foreign men, a long, long way from home.
She felt her way to the tent flap. Gripping the rough canvas, she stared out into darkness. Her eyes adjusted quickly. The cool evening air was alive with the clanking of heavy machinery. The half moon cast a silvery shimmer across the huddled tents. Bright enough for her to make her way along the path running between them and out into the open. There was no one to be seen. Where was all the noise coming from? She had expected a campfire at the very least. Men drinking and smoking, playing cards and talking.
The silhouettes of the guard towers stood stark against the night sky. Were they manned? If so, it was by men who stood as still and silent as the perimeter fence itself.
Juliana hugged her shoulders against the chill. Should she and Arthur try to leave? Were they safer on the inside of the fence or the outside? Were there any women here? So far she hadn’t seen a single one.
She rubbed the gooseflesh on her arms and was about to return to the tent when a loud clattering drew her attention. There’d been little opportunity to study the lay of the land, but now she could see that the surrounding buildings had been erected around the base of a hill, its crest illuminated by light beyond, streaking upwards to vanish into the clear night sky.
The clattering emanated from beyond it. Did miners usually work at night? She hadn't expected so, but what did she know about mining gold? She’d thought it done in rivers with dredges, sluice boxes and tin pans but there were no rivers here.
Or were there? Perhaps beyond the hill lay a flowing creek that led all the way to Wharftown! Perhaps she was not as lost as she'd believed, merely disorientated after following the wrong road. A road that ran parallel to the very river she had been searching for.
Her heartbeat quickened at the thought. She glanced about, then left the rough path and started up the hill. But the ground was uneven and difficult to traverse. She stumbled after only a few steps, grazing her hands on the ground’s stony surface. I must be careful, she reminded herself. We're all alone now, me and Arthur. All alone in this God-forsaken land.
She tried again, struggling a few more feet before her foot twisted on a loose rock. Juliana slipped and fell, although fortunately, not very far. It was no use. Despite the half moon, there was not enough light to see by. Her investigation would have to wait until morning.
Back in the tent, Arthur was still sleeping peacefully exactly where she'd left him. She lay down beside him, but sleep would not come. She was still awake and fretting when dawn broke.
First light brought with it a barrage of industrious noises. The tent was completely surrounded by Chinamen. She could hear their footfall but no voices. Not a single one. She dared not peep out through the tent flap. The silence of the men scared her. She had never known men not to chatter and curse. It was extremely unnerving.
“Mama—the potty!” urged Arthur, his small voice startling as it broke the silence.
Juliana pressed her finger to her lips, listening carefully as the noises outside their tent gradually subsided. When all was quiet, she gripped his hand and peered out through the tent's canvas flap. Last night water and rest was all she had cared about. Her stomach rumbled as she led her son along the slim passageway between the tents. Once they emerged into the open, she glanced up at the hill she had unsuccessfully tried to scale the night before. It was so much steeper than it had appeared by moonlight. More of a bluff than a hill and almost bare, save for stones and occasional tufts of scraggy grass. No wonder she’d slipped—she’d been lucky not to have broken her neck.
Silhouetted against the blue morning sky was a row of men winding their way up it, each dressed in loose linen trousers and pointed hats. Each shouldering tools as they marched in single file.
“Shush dear, it won't be long now,” she whispered. “Just hang on a little longer.”
Three men sat in the meagre shade of a shack. They tilted their heads as she approached.
“Excuse me,” said Juliana, standing as straight and tall as she could manage.
The men stared back at her from the shadows. Before she had a chance to speak again, Arthur let go of her hand and placed both of his own on his crotch and crossed his legs.
The man nearest to her stood up and pointed to a small structure about a hundred feet away.
“Much obliged,” she said, touching Arthur's arm and hurrying him in the right direction.
The toilet was a crude hut built above a pit. Primitive, but functional. There seemed to be no separation for men and women. Perhaps there were no women here?
When Arthur had finished, she made him stand guard until she, too, had relieved herself.
She kept one eye on the steady stream of diggers marching over the hill. There seemed to be no end to them. Whatever was on the far side, it was important.
Back in their tent, Juliana found two bowls of cold, lumpy porridge and a hunk of damper waiting for them alongside a fresh pitcher of water. She and Arthur sat on the pallet and ate their breakfast in grateful silence. Arthur gulped his down and started to fidget, all memories of hardship on the road forgotten.
“Is this Wharftown, Mama? Is it?”
Juliana smiled reassuringly and wiped a smudge of porridge from his cheek. “No, darling, it isn't. But I'm sure Wharftown isn't far away. We'll be settling into our new house before you know it.”
She reached over to the valise in search of a clean handkerchief. One of the leather straps was undone. Both had definitely been fastened properly the night before.
Juliana hurriedly undid the other strap and checked inside. Both pearl-handled pistols were missing. She fought the rising tide of panic. Without the pistols, she and Arthur were helpless.
She assisted Arthur with cleaning his face and hands, wrapped the remains of the damper in a cloth, and stowed it in her valise. Carefully, she refilled her water bottle from the pitcher. There was no telling when they might find more.
“Come on, Arthur, it’s time we were on our way.” Gripping the valise with both hands, Juliana emerged from their tent into harsh daylight. Arthur whined and tried to pull her in the opposite direction. “Shush,” she whispered. “We must not draw attention to ourselves.”
The camp was bustling with activity. Chinamen pushed past them carrying equipment, all identical in black trousers, matching shirts and pointed wide-brimmed hats that completely obscured their features.
The men ignored the both of them. It was as if Juliana and Arthur did not exist. Their silence continued to bother her. There was plenty of clanking and clattering hailed from beyond the hill, mixed with other sounds: hammering, sawing and the like. But there was not a single solitary voice to be heard besides her own.
In fact, not a word had been spoken since their arrival. A town filled completely with mute Chinamen? Could such a thing be possible?
There was no sign of her wagon, but she found a group of horses tethered together in the corral—yet another thing she’d failed to notice when they'd first arrived. Amongst them, her own beast, looking well fed and rested. The wagon was probably in one of the sheds. There was no way to retrieve it without drawing the attention of the armed men in the watchtower.
The high fence surrounded the town as far as she could see. But what lay on the far side of the hill?
“Come on, Arthur,” she said, tightening her grip on his hand. “Let us see what all that ruckus is about.”
Arthur grinned. He had managed to scramble halfway up the hill before Juliana located the path the Chinamen themselves had used. The valise was heavy and her shoes were beginning to wear through. Her sturdiest pair had not been sturdy enough for this harsh land. Likewise, the hem of her skirt was ripped and tattered. When we finally make it to Wharftown, I shall be mistaken for a beggar.
Arthur reached the top and waved. Juliana smiled back, pleased that he had managed to make a game of their situation. Something grabbed his attention and he turned his back on her. Juliana quickened her pace, puffing with exertion as she climbed the rest of the way.
Below them lay a great swathe cut into the earth. A mine, to be sure, but on a far grander scale than she’d imagined. Two slender strips of track led into the mine's gaping mouth: one heading in, the other, out. Both rail tracks were dotted with carts. Each cart was pushed by a Chinaman.
A little way out from the mine's entrance sat enormous metal vats connected by an array of fearsome-looking tubes and struts. Her first thoughts were of a distillery, but what a peculiar place for such a thing.
“This is all very strange, Arthur. Very strange indeed,” she said, craning her neck to survey the region that extended behind the mine's open face.
The fence stretched only halfway around the hill. No river lay beyond. Just a few hardy trees, which soon petered out, giving way to a vast expanse of bushy scrub. A few hundred yards beyond the mine lay another deep cut in the earth. Something extremely peculiar lay embedded within. An enormous nugget of polished silver, with a slim, spherical rim much like a saucer. No such shape could occur in nature. As large as several barns laid end-on-end. The skin of the object glinted in the sunlight. Arthur could not take his eyes off it as they picked their way down the hill towards the mine. The air was heavy with the stench of ammonia. Other powerful chemical smells assailed her nostrils, none of them familiar.
Arthur tugged on her skirts. Covering her nose with a handkerchief, she looked to where he was pointing. A row of Chinamen emerged from the mine's interior darkness pushing cards laden with yellow-tinged ore. Gold? Surely not!
Each man went about his work with furious concentration. A distinct air of haste hung over the whole operation. Juliana tried several times to attract attention, but none of them spoke a word—not to her, nor to each other. She was close to the point of exasperation when a volley of gunfire echoed from the camp at the bottom of the hill. Arthur raced back up to investigate before she could stop him.
“What is it, Arthur? What can you see?”
Instinct already told her what she would find. Men. Chief amongst them, the third man from the road. The man she had not killed with her pearl-handled pistols. She was too far away to make out the leader’s features, but she knew that she was right. The rogue had returned with a posse of armed men on horseback, and although she could not hear the words he shouted up at the watchtower guards, the anger in his voice was clear as day.
Viewed from the road, the perimeter fence appeared secure and impenetrable, but it did not stretch far and its heavy gate would not prevent angry men intent on entry. At best, the watchtower guards would be able to pick off a handful.
“Come quickly, Arthur—we must hide.”
Arthur nodded and started towards the silver disc.
“No!” Juliana exclaimed. “Not there. It isn't safe.” But was anywhere likely to be safe from three-score armed and angered men?
A pistol shot broke the silence. It was not apparent which side had fired first. The group split suddenly into three. Some rode around the perimeter fence to the right of the gate, others to the left. The third took to the wooden gate with axes.
“Arthur, quickly!”' She held out her hand. The mine was their only hope. How deep did it stretch into the earth's interior? Perhaps the horsemen wouldn't bother with it once they laid eyes on the massive silver disc.
A small hand placed itself inside her own. Gripping it, she hoisted her skirts and hurried across the stony terrain. Don't panic, she told herself. We must not panic. Perhaps the horsemen had not yet spotted them?
But that was too much to hope for. A cry echoed out across the barren landscape. Juliana looked back to see three horsemen cresting the hill. The nearest man drew his pistol and waved it in the air.
“Don't look back, Arthur.” How desperately she wished that her own pearl-handled pistols had not been taken. They would not have been much use, but they would have been better than nothing.
More shots rang out as the fighting began. Chinamen scurried for cover as the horsemen's mounts kicked up the dust. She quickened her pace, tugging hard on Arthur's hand. “Come on!”
The child's stoicism never ceased to astound her. He seldom ever cried or complained during their long, harsh sea voyage and the uncertainty of the colonial bush. He had always been a silent boy. Strong and silent. So much like his father.
Harold’s memory spurred her onwards. The air echoed with whistling bullets as they hurried on past the strange, bubbling apparatus and towards the entrance of the mine. A line of Chinamen emerged from the interior, continuing to push trolley loads of yellow ore.
“We're under attack!” she cried. “Men on horseback. Fifty of them at least!” Juliana gestured wildly. Once again, the men ignored her. Were they not even interested in saving their own skins?
The ground trembled as a posse of horsemen thundered over the hill, their hooves kicking up great plumes of dust. The men encircled Juliana, Arthur, and the miners, who had finally stopped pushing their carts. They stared silently at the men on horseback.
“Well, well, well, if it ain't our fine lady shooter from the road. Thought you could escape what's coming to yer by hidin' out amongst a horde of yeller bastards.”
Juliana did not answer. Only the hand of God could save them now.
“They ain't like us, you know,” the leader of the horsemen said, gesturing to the nearest of the miners with his gun. “I seen one up close and they ain't like us at all. More like shaved dogs walkin' on hind legs.”
Laughter broke out amongst the ranks of his men, and the leader laughed along with them.
“Bet they die like dogs, too,” said another man on horseback. Juliana gasped in horror as the man raised his rifle, aimed it at the nearest Chinaman and fired.
The Chinaman did not fall. The horseman swore, aimed and fired again. Once again, nothing happened.
“Look Mama!” exclaimed Arthur. He tugged on her skirt and pointed to the air in front of the Chinaman. Two bullets hung, suspended, frozen in their passage. The air around them rippled like water.
More horsemen swore and more rifles were raised. A volley of shots rang out to no avail. When the last of the rounds had been fired, all the bullets dropped harmlessly to the ground.
Enraged, the leader dug his spurs into his mount's flank, clearly intending to trample the miners beneath its hooves. He never got the chance. As the horse reared up, the nearest Chinaman pulled a metallic object from his sleave. He aimed it at the horseman and fired. A single shaft of silver light leapt from its tip to envelop the rider. By the time the horse's hooves hit ground again, the man in the saddle had vanished. The horse staggered, surprised at the sudden lessening of weight, but the beast was otherwise unharmed.
Silence followed before cries of anger and disbelief filled the air. Horses snorted as their riders shouted obscenities and urged them forward. Each man that moved met the same fate as their leader, as did those that attempted to ride away. Juliana covered her eyes and wrapped Arthur in her skirts to protect him from the massive plume of dust raised by the horses' hooves.
When, at last, all fell silent, Juliana uncovered her eyes. Not a single horseman remained.
She should have been afraid. She knew that, yet she wasn’t. The Chinamen would not hurt her or her son.
“Thank you,” she said, turning to face the nearest one, hoping this time he would choose to answer. But there was no one there. The carts stood abandoned on the makeshift rail line. Even the peculiar apparatus had ceased to bubble.
Arthur let go of her hand and ran to the edge of the hill before she could stop him. Juliana followed tentatively, almost afraid to peer over the side. Down below, several horses milled about, their saddles empty. No sign of their riders or the Chinamen.
Juliana retrieved her valise, which had somehow escaped trampling by the horses. “Quickly Arthur!” she whispered. They picked their way down the side of the hill. Silence enveloped the settlement like a shroud. All noisy machinery had ceased.
Their horse was still in the corral amongst the others. Juliana led it out and told Arthur to guard it while she went to find their wagon in one of the massive sheds that stood opposite.
With both hands she grabbed the bolt and tugged it free. The door creaked loudly open. Inside was pitch black. She pulled the door open further.
“Mama!” cried Arthur.
Juliana spun around and found herself face-to-face with a Chinaman. As usual, he did not speak. She took a deep breath and said “If you please, I would like to retrieve my wagon. My son and I are expected in Wharftown and I'm afraid we are long past overdue.”
The Chinaman raised his long-sleeved arms. He unfastened his pointed hat and lifted it from his head with both hands.
Juliana gasped. He was not a Chinaman at all—nor any possible kind of human being. How could she ever have supposed otherwise? This creature was entirely hairless and could best be described as a goblin with pale grey skin and large slanted almond-shaped eyes. Such an ugly thing, yet when it reached out its hand, she took it without fear.
The creature led her across the courtyard toward the front gate. Juliana reached her free hand back to Arthur. The three of them walked slowly, Juliana noting creatures emerging from the shadows to walk alongside them.
When they reached the gate, a fancy four-horse carriage awaited. Two creatures emerged from the back of the crowd, lugging Juliana's valise between them. Another hoisted it up inside the carriage. Yet another approached her and bowed.
“You are the one I found on the road?” she asked.
The creature pulled something from its sleeve. His sleeve. Her eyes widened at the sight of her mother’s pearl-handled pistols.
The creature grasped a pistol in his four-fingered hand. He aimed it at a boulder a few feet away and fired. Instead of a bullet, a brilliant beam of light shot forth from its barrel.
Arthur clapped in sheer delight.
The creature presented her with both pistols, handles first. As she took them, a mighty roar sounded from the hill behind them, followed by a terrifying blast of wind. The mighty silver disc rose up into the sky. It hovered directly above them, having moved its position in the blink of an eye. In another blink, it was gone and so were all the creatures. All that remained of them were little bundles of clothing and pointed bamboo hats.
Arthur laughed and danced as he waved his arms at the empty sky. Juliana shielded her eyes with her hands. The disc had completely vanished.
She watched her son dancing merrily, his arms outstretched as he spun around and around like a top. Juliana smiled, shifting her gaze to the fine team of horses that were now, apparently, theirs. “If only we know where Wharftown was, we'd be there in no time.”
“I know where,” said Arthur. He spun around one time too many and lost his balance. “Oops!”
“Arthur, whatever do you mean? We're lost, remember? Hopelessly and utterly lost.”
“I know exactly where Wharftown is,” the child said as he picked himself up from the ground and dusted off his pants.
“But how, Arthur? How could you possibly know?”
Arthur pointed upwards.
“Oh,” said Juliana, not doubting the truth of it for a moment.
“But why ever were they mining gold?”
“Not gold,” said Arthur. “U-ray-ne-um.”
“Uranium? What in Heaven’s name is that?”
Arthur shrugged and resumed his spinning. Juliana sighed, too exhausted to think about it all anymore. Her clothes were sweat-stained and filthy, her hair a complete mess. “Whatever you say, dear. Let us see if we can find somewhere to bathe before we resume our journey. And we must set the rest of the horses free or else they shall starve to death.”
Arthur laughed and twirled as Juliana went in search of a tub and water to fill it.
The onwards journey no longer seemed so frightening. As long as her pearl-handled pistols were within reach, Juliana knew she would never fear anything again.
Cat Sparks is fiction editor of Cosmos Magazine. Former manager of Agog! Press, she’s known for her award-winning editing, writing, graphic design and photography.
Over sixty of her short stories have been published since the turn of the millennium. She is currently doing a PhD in young adult post-disaster literature.
Her first novel, Blue Lotus, is finally nearing completion.