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Chapter One

Australia, 1857


An accident, they say. Some poor fool trying to blast his way to glory by digging with black powder instead of a shovel. But we can all hear the whispers beneath. Those whispers that poor old Fred Buckley did this to himself. Tossed the explosives into his mining claim and leapt in there after them. Another failed attempt at fortune on the goldfields.

And now here we all are in the graveyard, gathered around the small wooden box containing all that’s left of the man. I haven’t seen inside myself, of course, but word is it contains a few brass buttons and a boot that was miraculously blown clear of the explosion.

I only met Buckley once or twice, but my husband Tom knew him well, their claims not far from each other’s on the western edge of the Forest Creek gold diggings. The morning of Buckley’s death, Tom said, he was heading out to start work when the explosion ripped through the air and made the ground move like sea.

The vicar murmurs a prayer, and down that sorry little box goes into the ground. Buckley had no wife or children, so there are no tears at his grave, just curiosity, and a fairly ceaseless torrent of murmuring. 

We traipse back down the hill after the burial, clouds of dust blooming beneath our boots.

“Well,” says Leo Evans, “if you’re going to do away with yourself, that’s a damn spectacular way to do it.”

“Aye,” Ollie Cooper agrees. “Something with a bit of drama to it.”

“Let’s go to Martha’s,” says a leather-faced digger who’s just introduced himself to us as Clyde. “Was poor old Fred’s favourite place for a drink.” 

Martha’s is a canvas-walled grog shop on the edge of the diggings, a remnant of the days when this place was nothing but a few holes in the ground, and outlawed drink was sold in the shadows. These days, the town’s made of more solid stuff than canvas, but Martha’s hasn’t lost its pull over the locals.

“Lucy?” Tom asks me. “Do you want to go home?”

“No.” I can’t bear the thought of another stilted night in our cottage, where Tom and I make strained small talk before falling asleep with our backs to each other. “You knew Mr Buckley well. We ought to drink to him.”

We pile into the carts and traps waiting outside the cemetery and rattle back towards Forest Creek. The sun is lying low over the hills, bathing the scarred landscape in shadow. Trees have been cut away in the scramble for gold, and the earth is a bleak forest of windlasses and tents. The evening shriek of birdsong is beginning in the sparse bushland that remains beyond the diggings. A silhouette of parrots swoops past the wagon. 

Tom offers me a hand to help me out of the cart. I haven’t been to the tent village on the edge of the diggings since we moved into town a few months ago. But one glance at the place, one inhalation of that earth-and-ash scent brings back memory after memory: cooking bread in coals out the front of our tent, walls flapping like sails in the night. The constant rattle of mining cradles, of shovels, of footsteps, of men. Knuckles and fingernails thick with dirt. And the flies, the flies, the flies.

When Tom hands me a tin cup filled with Martha’s most vicious moonshine, I gulp it down quickly. I don’t want these memories lingering.

The grog shop tent is crowded and noisy, pipe smoke rising into the pitched roof and making the hot air near unbreathable. Men spill into the street, a few patched-skirted women among them. Most of the diggers who didn’t attend the burial have finished work for the evening, and the crowd is growing. Conversation turns to who found takings today, before circling back to Fred Buckley.

“It was no suicide,” announces Arthur Wallace, who always knows everything about everything. “I heard he just sold five pounds’ worth.” He brings a fat cigar to his lips. “Why would the man have done away with himself if he’d just found a haul?”

“A haul isn’t everything,” I say to my cup. I feel Tom’s eyes on me, but he doesn’t speak.

“Maybe he didn’t do away with himself then,” says Leo, ignoring my comment. “Maybe someone done it for him.”

A fresh murmur ripples through the crowd, more drink-laden thrill than horror at the thought of there being a murderer among us.

“If someone did take him out, you could hardly blame them.” Martha, the landlady, speaks up from behind the barrels and wood planks that serve as the bar. “He were fond of swinging his fists, that Fred Buckley. Maybe he had a go at someone who didn’t half appreciate it.”

“Let’s ask him,” Clyde booms suddenly, waving his hand with the drink in it and spilling ale over his round belly. “You know, like them girls in America done, with the knocking on the walls. Talked to the dead and all, they did. Asked them all sorts of questions. Knock once for no, knock twice for yes, and all that.”

I rush another gulp of liquor. I suppose it was only a matter of time until we got here. Because ask any man on the street and they’ll tell you the dead are all around us. There’s something about this land, they say, as they toss back ales and speak in whispers. If you listen real hard and the wind blows the right way, you can hear the ghosts of the blackfellas drumming away, keeping watch over the mountains and creeks and the rusty open plains. These are the spirits, they say, that were here long before our ships arrived; those that carved the hills and rivers, and make this land seem to ripple in the dark. And then there are the ghosts we brought out on the ships with us: the banshees and the will-o’-the wisps, and that headless horseman that turned out to be a dressmaker’s mannequin someone pinched from the dust yard. The infamous Green Lady who walks Barker Street, despite there being no castle within ten thousand miles. Holding on to these stories makes home feel not quite so far away.

I don’t believe in spooks. Never have. Before me and Tom came out from England, I spent five years scrubbing dishes at Hartwell Manor in Horley, a place so full of creaks and groans and ghost stories it was a wonder anyone ever got a wink of sleep. But while the other girls loved working themselves into a frenzy at every screech of the floorboards, I found the draughts and the shadows and the tricks of the light. I couldn’t see the fun in having the dead living alongside you.

“What’s he going to knock with?” demands Leo. “His hands got blown off.”

“A ghost don’t need hands,” Clyde says matter-of-factly. “They knock with their soul.” 

I snort into my cup, earning a sideways glance from Tom.

“So what do we do then?” Leo scratches his matted beard. “Go back to his grave and just ask him some questions?”

“No point going to his grave,” says Clyde. “He ain’t there, is he. Just a few buttons and a shoe. Best off going to his claim. Where he died.”

He heads for the door, causing a string of other men to follow.

“Let’s go home,” says Tom, tossing back the last of his liquor.  

“No, I want to watch.” There’s something oddly enthralling about all this. While I didn’t go in for ghost stories at Hartwell Manor, it feels strangely appealing to go along with them now. As though it might take me away from the bleakness of what my day-to-day life has become. Juxtaposed against all that deadness, maybe I’ll remember what it is to feel alive.

I can practically see the indecision move across Tom’s face. Stupidity, yes, but lately he agrees to anything that falls into the category of making Lucy happy. With an enormous sigh so there can be no doubt he’s doing this under duress, he nods. Takes a firm grip on my arm and joins the procession across the diggings.

“Do you think there’s really a chance Buckley was murdered?” I ask as we weave through the claims. Holes yawn in the earth, signposted by tents at their edges. Smoke curls up from the campfires and disappears into the stars.

I try to keep my voice light. If Tom knew the men’s talk has worked its way beneath my skin, he’d be whisking me back home before you could say knock twice for yes.

“It was an accident, Luce,” he says. “That’s all. Black powder’s bloody unpredictable. Why do you think the most of us stay away from the stuff?”

But it is not a huge stretch to imagine we might be living beside a murderer. After all, the fact that we’re among thieves cannot be denied.  

In a place where greed and desperation are this rife, petty thieving is a part of life. Gold nuggets and coins stolen from tents while men sleep. Pockets picked. Goods taken from shop shelves by men with light fingers. Barely a day goes by without a robbery being reported. The troopers have made a few half-hearted arrests – Chinamen and Irish usually – but none of them ever stick.  

“Well,” says Tom, when I remind him of this, “petty thieving is one thing. Murder is something else. And I promise you there’s nothing to worry about.”

“I’m not worried,” I say. But I’m not sure if that’s true. My emotions feel clouded these days, as though I can’t quite catch hold of them long enough to read them.

We reach Fred Buckley’s claim. Or rather, what’s left of it. One by one, we climb over the rope set up by the police to mark the site of the incident. The side of the pit has been blown out in the blast, mounds of earth now filling the shaft. Blackened pieces of the windlass lie not far from the hole. It’s only a matter of time before some brassy sods are down there prospecting. If they haven’t been already.

We cluster around the ragged edge of the claim, Leo and Clyde shoving their way to the front. I realise I’m the only woman who’s bothered making the trek out here.

“Fred!” Clyde bellows. “Can you hear me? Who done this to you? Did you do away with yourself? Knock once for no, twice for yes.”

“On the windlass, Fred,” Leo adds. “Knock on the windlass.”

Everyone falls silent. Waiting. Even I can’t pull my eyes from the broken windlass lying by Clyde’s feet.


“Were you murdered, Fred?” calls Leo, his face furrowed with such seriousness I’d laugh if I wasn’t standing where some poor bastard was just blasted to pieces.

Still no knocking. In the forest behind us, an owl shrieks.  

“Fred? You there, man?”

“This is madness.” Tom’s hand wrenches around my arm, and we’re marching away suddenly from Buckley’s claim.

“Tom. You’re hurting me.”

“Sorry.” He lets his hand fall. “Watch yourself. The—”

“The claims are hard to see in the dark. Yes, I know.”

We walk back towards our cottage in near silence, the newly erected streetlamps throwing yellow light onto the road. Trees tower on either side of us, their white trunks ghostly in the semi-darkness.

“Madness,” Tom says again. And then, “Poor Fred. How could those bastards be so disrespectful?”

I give a short smile. “I think Fred’s past caring if he’s disrespected.”

“You think?”

I don’t answer. We fall back into our usual silence until we reach the cottage. It sits lightless on the corner of a new row of houses, close to where the town of Castlemaine gives way to the bush. Tom slides the key into the lock. 

And then, crack, crack, crack ­– the emptying of the guns, in perfect synchronicity with the turning of the key. Every night this comes; this sudden violent outburst from the diggings that hem the town. And every night it manages to scare me. Nothing to be afraid of, Tom has assured me. Guns emptied in the night to prevent the ammunition becoming damp. There are those who say the emptying of the guns is not a measure of maintenance but a warning to would-be thieves. Stay away from my tent. Hear what I’ve got in store for you if you try and cross me.

To me, hundreds of weapons roaring together each night is a reminder of how fragile this life is. How easily it could be any one of us lying in the earth, with Clyde trying to get us to knock on the damn windlass. A reminder of how many ways there are to die here.

The last echoes of gunfire are swallowed by the night, the burn of powder faint on the air. And just as I do every evening when the pistols are emptied into this eternal sky, I imagine myself screaming.


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