Inspired by a story from a digger who moved to Bendigo in November 1851 and is one of the miners on the field when the 603 men woman and children pool resources for a combined Christmas dinner. There he met Rose, 15 year old daughter of a miner who is murdered, leaving her with 3 younger sisters to raise alone, and some family secrets. Crime including rape was a problem on the fields. Cats are a precious commodity on the gold fields, their value being in keeping rats and mice away, and their price being the same as gold.
Bendigo Goldfields 1851 – Christmas Day
Rose stood tall, defiant and half naked, her ripped chemise falling over her corset exposing her breasts, while the three men ogled her body. Simultaneously she appraised them, determining the kill sequence.
That morning she’d dressed in her only dress, her dead mother’s Sunday best. Her cheeks had flushed at the prospect of meeting a young man from the goldfields dressed as a young lady, rather than camouflaged in her father’s digger clothes.
She had taken her younger sisters to the Christmas dinner and being one of the few women on the field had assisted with the cooking. It had been months since she had prepared anything but simple damper or mutton in different guises, and her eyes shone as she viewed the pooled resources of the 603 individuals on the Bendigo field. One of the richer gold merchants, Ivan, in a flamboyant display of camaraderie, had even contributed potatoes, carrots, oranges and eggs, and a few fowl.
She looked into Ivan’s eyes now and saw nothing but lust.
She had been enjoying a flirtation with her young man, laughing up into his face and watching her sisters relish the rare treat of orange segments while waiting for the campfire eggs in the hollowed-out orange shells to cook in the fire’s ashes, when Ivan had noticed her.
The pastor’s wife had wrapped small tokens in newspaper as gifts for the children on the field and when Charley and Lily tiptoed up to receive their gifts Rose had watched their beloved faces beam, her vision clouding with unshed tears. She’d had nothing to give them this year; it was hard enough scraping together enough to buy basic food supplies working the field on her own. Lily, ripping the newspaper to reveal a doll, had skipped and squealed despite its battered face and tattered clothes. She hadn’t put it down since taking possession of it. Charley was now the proud owner of a toy gun. She had accepted it gracefully, winking at Rose, for Charley was allowed to use used their father’s revolver occasionally. Rose believed in training.
When the festivities finished Rose had taken her sisters back to the bark hut they called home. Little Lily, red-cheeked and exhausted slept on her shoulder, the treasured doll tucked in between them for fear of losing it; whilst Charley, always the tomboy, especially since their father’s disappearance, strutted ahead; her small shoulders thrown back, one skinny tanned arm wielding a torch she had made from bark, the toy gun wedged in her skirt waistband.
Ivan had followed furtively with his two minders. Now they regarded her through lust-fuelled eyes.
Ivan had been the first through the doorway, his frame filling it and his shadow from Charley’s torch resembling a monster. Watching his brawny hand rip the lacy chemise she felt remorse at her childish reluctance to remove her finery. As she assessed him the scar through his left eyebrow looked fresher up close, making him squint occasionally. She guessed the injury probably impacted on his vision and made a mental note to approach from her right. He had a revolver wedged into his belt.
The second, James, was a slimy character from the gold markets, infamous for his extortionate dealings with desperate miners. What he lacked in height he made up for in girth, his straining over-shirt exposing his hairy stomach. Armed with a folding blade-knife tucked beneath his blubber, it would be hard to retrieve and slow to deploy. He would be last.
The third, Steady Eddie, was a well-known ladies man, and the best shot in the area. It was the only thing that kept him alive. A Colt revolver poked out of his waistband. She had to take him first.
“We’re gentlemen, Rose – we waited till you put the children to bed,” Ivan smirked, revealing broken yellowed teeth, simultaneously inclining his head towards the sheet that acted as a makeshift room divider, behind which Charley and Lily thankfully slept.
Throwing back her head to escape his breath, rank from tobacco and illegal alcohol, her eyes fell on the picture of a Colt revolver advertised in the newspaper that acted as wallpaper above the woodpile. Charley’s idea of a joke knowing Rose had hidden her guns behind here. There was her weapon of choice, her father’s flintlock musket, a legacy of his time in the colonial military; too cumbersome to retrieve easily, but the Dickson Pepperbox stashed next to it – perfect.
Thank God it was loaded – only two rounds though. She’d have to shoot straight and have a backup for number three. Her thoughts flew to the pickaxe by the door.
“My father – ”
“Isn’t coming back, little lady,” Ivan’s leer turned into a full-bellied laugh. “We know where he pushes up the daisies!”
A cold wave of understanding registered. Her father was dead, and these men had engineered it. They called her Rose – they knew her name. Her heart beating out of her birdcage chest, she wondered if they knew her secret.
She’d already accepted she would have to kill them to get out of this alive, but now she didn’t have to feel any remorse about their deaths. Although she’d promised her God-fearing mother on her deathbed she’d never kill, she’d broken that oath within hours. An unfortunate incident, but necessary.
She went through the mental process her ex-military father had drummed into her since she was five.
Closing her eyes, inhaling deeply, she threw back her shoulders. Her father had taught her well – first create a distraction. She needed to get to the guns but they were on the other side of the room.
The men were tossing her between them now, playing with her like her cat, Precious, did mice. They guffawed as each action ripped the chemise a little more. When it was Ivan’s turn, she contrived flying. Using her skirts as a ploy for tripping she tumbled landing hard against the woodpile.
From there it was easy. She turned and looked at them, whilst feigning using the woodpile to pull herself up.
“Now there’s a man that doesn’t know his own strength.”
They were slapping each other and laughing. Her hand slipped behind the woodpile and her fingers located the revolver’s handle.
“Ain’t you gonna come and help a lady up,” she smiled at Edward. Grinning he strode over and offered his right hand. Taking it in her left, in a swift practiced movement she drew the Dicksen and shot him point-blank.
He crumpled to the floor and Ivan and Jimmy both instinctively reached for their weapons. Swapping the revolver into her left hand, she grabbed the barrel of the musket and tossed it smoothly in the air, catching it easily and bracing it into her shoulder.
But Ivan had ducked under the sheet and emerged holding Lily. Her face, still flushed from the day’s excitement, crumpled as she registered the scene. She emitted a single whimper holding out her arms to Rose.
“Reckon I called your bluff, little lady. Drop the guns or my friend here will introduce your little girl to his blade.”
Rose saw a flicker of movement at the other side of the sheet. Charley was awake. Thank God.
Placing the Dicksen on the floor Rose kicked it towards the sheet. She dramatically threw the musket in the other direction, deflecting attention from the sheet. Only she saw the small hand slither under the sheet and clasp the revolver. She debated whether Charley could kill as well as shoot. It was a big ask of a 12 year old. Rose recalled her first kill, she was 15 and mama had just died, her father was away burying her. A man dragged Charley and Lily into the bush. Rose didn’t have a choice. She prayed Charley would feel the same.
Lily again held out her arms to Rose.
“Okay Ivan, you win. Just let her go.”
Ivan released Lily into the grasp of Jimmy. Charley peeked out from the sheet, her face a mask of determination in the flickering torch light. Taking careful aim she shot Ivan in the back.
Jimmy panicked, unintentionally releasing Lily whilst retrieving his knife. He threw it at Rose just as she flung her body sideways at the musket. Charley aimed again and an impotent click made Jimmy sneer.
Rose aimed the musket at Jimmy’s torso and fired. He staggered and collapsed creating the image of an untidy pile of flesh. Blood spurted and leached over the mud floor.
Charley emerged, shrugging. “Only two rounds, Rose?”
“Times are tough. Good thing there weren’t four of them.”
Lily coughed and Rose and Charley spun around to find her standing with the pickaxe over her shoulder, its pick reaching almost to the ground. Behind her was Precious, a hissing mass of fur, protecting her own little balls of fluff, each worth more than an ounce of gold. Their own little gold mine.
“Our secret’s safe!”