The Silent FrontierAuthor: Peter Watt
Imprint: Pan Australia
Featured in the August, 2007 magazine
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Sunday, 3 December 1854
‘To arms! California Rangers to the front!'
Awakening from a deep sleep, ten-year-old Lachlan MacDonald heard the shouted order and opened his eyes slowly. He could barely focus on the canvas roof above his camp stretcher and heard his father curse in the semi-dark of the early morning.
Following the shouted order Lachlan heard a shot and recognised it as coming from a rifled musket. Fear and confusion overcame him as he lay on his back in the sweltering heat of the summer's day on the goldfields of the Victorian colony of Ballarat.
‘Get up, Lachie,' he heard his nineteen-year-old brother Tom shout at him from inside the tent the boy shared with his family. ‘The bloody red-coats are attacking on the Sabbath.'
Lachlan sat up and then tumbled from his bed to stand uncertainly. His other brother, John, two years older than him, was holding their little sister, Phoebe, who was only five, in his arms. She was whimpering, torn from her sleep to the sudden crashing sound of a volley of musketry from a short distance away.
‘God almighty,' Lachlan heard his father say. ‘It's started. God have mercy on our souls. Thomas, get your brothers and sister out of here now. Run for the hills and hide in the bush until I come for you. Take this,' Hugh added, tossing a heavy leather money belt to his oldest son. ‘Make sure you take it with the kids.'
Tom quickly strapped the leather belt around his waist under his shirt. He knew it contained a small fortune in five-pound sterling coins resulting from his father's sale of the profitable gold claim they had owned. The rest of the money they had made from the claim had been converted to paper currency and stored in a small tin, which his father was even now recovering from its hiding place under the earthen floor. The Scot was not a great believer in banks, which he saw as an extension of the detested English establishment.
While his father was recovering their savings, Lachlan could hear men cursing, shouting, crying out for help and even screaming out as the lead balls tore into yielding flesh on both sides of the palisade fence of crossed timbers. The Eureka stockade was under attack and Lachlan was confused why this should be so when the evening before his father had said they were safe on the Sabbath. If nothing else, his father had said, the British were a God-fearing nation and would respect Sunday as a day set aside for God.
‘Da,' Thomas said, ‘John can take Phoebe and Lachie to the bush. I will stay with you.'
Hugh MacDonald, a powerfully built man with a distinctive Scottish brogue, grabbed his oldest boy by the shoulders.
‘Don't argue, lad,' he said, shaking his son. ‘Get them out of here. I said I will join you.'
Tom turned to look at his younger brothers and little sister staring back at him, their eyes wide with fear. ‘C'mon,' he growled reluctantly. ‘Follow me and don't get lost.'
Tom snatched up his little sister and placed her astride his shoulders once they were clear of the tent entrance. It was then that Lachlan saw what was taking place all around him. Men dressed in the dark blue of the goldfields police and soldiers in their red coats with the distinctive white strap between shoulder and waist were pouring into the fortified enclosure to clash hand to hand with the rebellious miners. Long bayonet against axe-like pike, revolver against musket. Lachlan looked over to where the great flagpole stood with its blue flag and silver southern cross emblem flapping gently in the first rays of the summer's morn. He could see Lieutenant Ross, a Canadian miner who was said to have designed the flag of rebellion, fighting under it. Horses galloped all around them raising clouds of dust as Tom hauled his young charges after him towards the dimly lit outline of the tree-covered hills that lay to the west.
Tom placed his sister on the ground and swung around to glimpse back to where they had come from. ‘God, no,' he whispered under his breath and turned quickly to John. ‘Keep going with your brother and sister. Don't stop running until you get to the hill and hide in the trees until I come for you.'
John understood and took his sister's hand to half-drag, half-trot with her towards the increasingly distinct ridge of trees. He did not look back, as he was afraid of what his older brother may have seen. Lachlan followed reluctantly.
Tom sprinted back to the tent, where he saw his father clutching a small tin box. He had been confronted by a goldfields policeman who had a bayonet-tipped musket levelled at his chest.
‘You are my prisoner,' the policeman snarled. ‘Yield in the Queen's name, rebel.'
‘I'm not a bloody rebel, man,' Hugh MacDonald shouted. ‘I just want to get out of here and join my family — so step aside.'
Tom had almost reached his father when a red-coated officer galloped up to the tent. The officer was wielding a sabre that caught the first rays of the sun along its silver blade as he waved it over his head. ‘Don't argue, trooper,' the officer shouted. ‘Kill the rebel.'
Hugh MacDonald was momentarily distracted by the arrival of the mounted officer and the police officer lunged forward to bury the pointed tip of the long bayonet into the Scotsman's chest, running the blade through until it came out Hugh's back. The big Scot buckled at the knees, dropped the tin box and collapsed onto the dusty earth.
‘No, you bastards,' Tom screamed at the top of his lungs, launching himself at the mounted English officer. ‘He wasn't a rebel, he was just trying to get out of here.'
The sabre fell and Tom felt it bite through the bone and flesh of his shoulder. He cried out with the searing pain before crumpling to the earth into an oblivion of merciful darkness.
The officer astride his horse glanced down at the ground where the two men lay. The policeman grunted, struggling to withdraw the bayonet from the body of the big man at his feet. He placed his foot on Hugh's chest and gave a powerful tug; the bayonet came free, followed by a steady flow of blood.
‘That tin, man,' the mounted officer said. ‘What does it contain?'
As the policeman scooped up the tin and opened it, the expression of surprise on his face was not missed by the English officer.
‘Money, sir,' the policeman blurted. ‘A bloody lot of money.'
‘No need to curse on the Lord's day,' the officer said irritably. ‘Here, be a good chap and hand it up to me.'
The policeman eyed the English officer suspiciously, gripping the tin to his chest, reluctant to part with his sudden and wonderful find. ‘A trophy of war,' he said. ‘With all due respect, sir, this money is mine to keep.'
‘It is considered looting, sir,' the officer said threateningly. ‘And I am authorised by Her Majesty the Queen to shoot you down without trial for the crime.'
The policeman hesitated. His eyes darted around the enclosure to see if there were any immediate witnesses if he were to carry out the thoughts that had gone so quickly through his mind. When he glanced up at the officer he was startled to see that the Englishman had him covered with a small revolver. ‘Hand it up, man, and I will overlook this infraction of the rules,' the officer said grimly.The policeman could see that he had no choice. He had already discharged his musket in the early stages of the attack on the rebels' stockade and had not had the chance to reload the single-shot weapon. Now he was out-gunned by the officer who had a sabre and revolver to enforce his command. The policeman handed up the tin box which the officer slipped inside his coat, before wheeling around his mount and galloping away, leaving the policeman alone with the bodies of the two men they had struck down.