The Sampling: Children of the Rush (#2)

James Russell

The Sapling is running a Summer Excerpt Series showcasing the junior and young adult titles from the 2023 Storylines Notable Book Awards. This week we have the first three chapters from James Russell’s Children of the Rush 2, the thrilling sequel to his captivating gold rush tale. Read Claudine Tapsell’s review of the novel here.

Chapter 1


As soon as I wake, it hits me like a hammer blow: my father is now a full week overdue. A panicky sensation rises. It makes my stomach churn, but it also spurs me to action.

I dress as quietly as I can. Atarangi and Michael will sleep for another hour yet, and I don’t like to disturb them. Lucy, Michael’s dog, is always happy to wake, and she slinks along beside me, her tail wagging furiously.

As I have every morning for the past week, I tiptoe down the corridor and through the kitchen, then slip out the back door of the hotel. Lucy follows.

The swirling wind has corralled the snow into deep drifts and heaped them up against the hotel walls. It’s bitterly cold; my breath ghosts out before being whipped away by the freezing southerly.

I pass the lean-to as quietly as possible; I don’t want to wake Brendan or Hinewai either.

To stay warm, I walk briskly along the main street through Gabriel’s Gully. In the half-light there’s an eerie desolation to the town. The merchants and miners are still wisely tucked up in their beds.

Over the past months, the merchants’ canvas tents have given way to sturdier structures of stone, timber, and tin, but it’s still only slightly less ramshackle and disorganised than it was when Baba and I arrived here a month ago – in July of 1862. Some buildings also now lie empty; as the Gully’s easily accessible gold has been mined out, the miners have moved on to richer fields, and the merchants have followed.

There are two other hotels in town: The End of the World and the Last-Ditch Hotel. When they opened, their names made us laugh, but I can’t even raise a smile as I pass them now.

The worry and fear returns, and I swallow it down.

I pass out of town and continue along the track. This is the route west, and more and more miners are taking it and disappearing into the great interior of the South Island – which Atarangi calls Te Wai Pounamu, meaning ‘the waters of greenstone’. I thought it a far more imaginative name than plain old ‘South Island’, the name given to it by the European settlers of this country. Her Māori traditions seem more ancient, more rooted in the landscape and its history, than European ones. They remind me of my own Chinese heritage, and make me feel a little more at home in this country. Atarangi showed me the greenstone pendant she wears around her neck and told me that her people consider it a far greater treasure than gold.

Occasionally, miners return to Gabriel’s Gully on this road, too. They’re always dishevelled, thin, and exhausted – just shells of the men who left. Sometimes they return with fewer members of their party than they set out with. Men have died on the diggings in more ways than can be imagined: swept away by rivers in flood, caught in avalanches on snowy hillsides, tumbling from clifftops. Some have died from exposure to the bitter cold.

Incredibly, some have even starved to death on the riverbanks because they couldn’t bring themselves to abandon a rich digging site to find food.

I can’t think too much about all of this, because I start to imagine that my father – Baba – might also have perished, alone out there in the canyons of Central Otago. It’s more than I can bear.

Well out of town, I reach the Chinese miners’ camp. Until three weeks ago I lived here with Baba.

By now I’m freezing cold, and I pull my sleeves down over my numb fingers.

Just one miner is up and about – an old man I call Uncle Hoy. He isn’t really my uncle, but a good friend of my father’s. He’s kind and gentle, and fond of me. I watch as he brews jasmine tea over a fire that sputters and struggles against the brisk wind. When he sees me his eyes light up.

“Siu!” he says, beaming at me. His smile is like the sun rising.

But Uncle Hoy knows why I’m here, and shakes his head sadly. My father has not yet returned.

He pats the seat beside him, urging me to join him, and pours me a steaming mug of tea, which I gratefully wrap my hands around. The heat stings my numb fingers. Lucy sits at my feet, pressing against my legs.

Uncle Hoy tells me not to worry. He says that my father knows what he’s doing, that he’s going to find a rich goldfield, that soon he’ll be back and ready to lead us all to it.

“We’ll dig it all up in no time, make our fortune, and leave these goldfields forever,” he says. “We’ll go somewhere warm and dry and sit in front of a roaring fire all day long. All this will be nothing more than a distant memory. You and I will laugh about it, our pockets as full as our bellies.”

I let Uncle Hoy’s dream wash over me. He’s so convinced that it’s his destiny that it’s easy to believe in it.

The snow begins to fall in earnest. Big, wet flakes settle in Uncle Hoy’s beard and hair.

I thank him for the tea, and he hugs me as he bids me farewell.

“See you tomorrow morning,” he says.

I’m halfway back to Gabriel’s Gully when it happens.

A premonition – a terrible sense of impending doom – comes upon me. It has happened before. It arrives like an attacking wolf, black and sudden and ferocious. Something bad is going to happen. To begin with I don’t know where, or when, or to whom. But I can feel it, and it comes with a frightening certainty.

I’m forced to stop, and I drop to my knees in the snow, holding my head in my hands, my eyes squeezed shut. I wait for the vision that I know is to come. Flickering images appear in my mind, but they’re hard to make out; it’s as though they’re being projected onto a gauze screen, little more than hazy shadows and flickering lights. There are men running – dark figures racing across a backdrop of grey stone. They have bad intentions, I can sense it. There are noises, too: shouts of panic, of anger and aggression. Then a howling cry rises, and with horror, I recognise my father’s voice. I can’t help it – I scream aloud in terror.

Suddenly I feel Lucy’s wet nose in my hand, and it snaps me out of the awful dream. I get to my feet and take to my heels, stumbling across the uneven ground. Snow falls thick and fast, and it’s difficult to see the track. The world has become a study in white; the hills are enveloped in a pale mist, and it’s almost impossible to see where the ground ends and the sky begins. It’s only the odd rock still showing through the snow that gives me any reference, and twice on the way back to the Gully I realise I’ve left the path.

In frustration, I scream at the sky. I must find someone to help. Baba needs me!

Chapter 2


I rise early and peek into Siu’s room, but her bed is empty. I press my hand to her swag – still warm – so I know she isn’t long out of bed.

I know she’s gone to see if her father has returned to the Chinese miners’ camp. She’s sick with worry, and I know only too well what it’s like to expect your father home, only to have your hopes dashed day after day. It happened to me, and it’s the reason my mother and I are here in Gabriel’s Gully. We came in search of my father, who had been hired as a guide to bring some miners here, only to learn that he and the miners had drowned on the Mata-au River. It breaks my heart afresh to think of it, and I sympathise with Siu. Worse, her father is the only parent she’s ever known; she told me that her mother died when she was just a baby. Ever since, Siu and her father have been adrift in the world, travelling and working to survive. Siu has been to places I’ve never heard of. Before coming here, they lived for two years in Australia – digging for gold in the rush in Victoria.

I’m thinking about her as I walk into the kitchen. Michael is at the stove, carefully stirring a large pot of porridge. He smiles as I come in.

“Morena, Atarangi,” he says.

I smile back. He’s getting better at speaking te reo, the Māori language. Three times a week I teach it at the schoolhouse that Michael’s father Brendan built onto the side of the hotel. There are now more than a dozen children that regularly come to school, and some days a curious miner or two take their seats at the benches, sick of the diggings and keen to learn something new. Brendan himself never misses a te reo lesson, and he speaks only the Māori language with my mother, Hinewai.

The schoolhouse is where Michael and I first met Siu, almost a month ago now. There had come a gentle knock at the door, so faint that we almost didn’t hear it. When Michael opened it, Siu was standing there. Her father – whom she calls Baba – was a few steps behind. Siu is tiny, and looked so small that I immediately thought she was two or even three years younger than Michael and me, but in fact we’re all the same age: twelve years old.

She introduced herself as Lai Siu Fong, but told us we could call her Siu. When I asked her why not Lai, she told me that in China surnames are always said first. I remember repeating her full name over and over, thinking how exotic and beautiful it sounded.

We quickly discovered that what Siu lacked in size, she made up for in personality. She’s fiery and brave. At school she makes her arguments fiercely and with passion, and never backs down from a challenge.

Siu and I became firm friends almost immediately. She doesn’t seem so small anymore.

Michael says Siu’s colours are a similar shape to mine – a kaleidoscopic fountain, like a peacock’s tail, rising high above her head. Michael has told me that my colours are pink, orange, and green, which he says means strong of character, creative, and cheerful. Siu’s are purple – the colour of love, and yellow – the colour of optimism.

I often press Michael to describe what he sees, but he can’t explain it to me in a way that makes complete sense. He can see what he calls people’s ‘colours’, but he says that ‘seeing’ is the wrong word, and even ‘colours’ isn’t quite right. He tells me it’s more in his mind’s eye than something he can actually see. I’m the only person in the world who knows about his secret, and I feel the weight of responsibility to keep it that way.

When Siu’s father decided to try the diggings further inland, he came to the hotel with Siu and shyly asked my mother if she could stay with us while he was away. Siu translated the Cantonese language into English, and I translated it into Māori for Māmā.

Māmā agreed straightaway. As it was, Siu already spent more time in the schoolhouse with Michael and me than she did at the Chinese miners’ camp, and Māmā is very fond of her.

It’s freezing cold, and Michael and I huddle around the wood stove to get some warmth into our bones. Michael opens the hatch to let out more heat, and we laugh as we battle to push each other’s hands out of the way to hold our own closer to the flames.

The back door swings open, letting in a blast of freezing air and swirling snowflakes, and Brendan comes into the kitchen with an armload of firewood. We have to keep our wood locked in a shed or it will be stolen by miners desperate for fuel for their own fires.

“Good morning, Father,” says Michael. “Kei te pehea koe?”

“Kei te ora pai au. Tēnā koe,” he replies. Very well, thank you.

Brendan says that the lean-to, where he and Māmā sleep, is even colder than inside the hotel, and joins us by the fire.

Soon the porridge is ready, and Michael spoons it into bowls. I carefully chop an apple into fine chunks and sprinkle them over the top. Māmā managed to buy half a dozen apples from a merchant yesterday, and we could hardly believe our eyes because they’re rarer than hen’s teeth here in the Gully. It’s the first apple I’ve eaten in months and its fresh sweetness is delicious. We eat in silence, grateful for the flavour and the warmth in our bellies.

When we’ve finished I fill another bowl. I’m going to bring Māmā her breakfast in bed. She spent the whole day yesterday making meals for visitors to the hotel, so for a change I like to serve her a meal.

I step outside with the steaming bowl in my hands, going carefully down the frosty steps. It’s snowing hard and the flurries swirling around the back of the hotel are piling up into drifts. I watch as the flakes land on the porridge and instantly melt, but I don’t want it to get cold, so I hurry around the corner towards the lean-to.

A man is coming in the opposite direction, and we almost collide. The porridge slops up the side of the bowl and some of it spills on my hand, and I gasp from the burning heat of it.

“Auē!” I exclaim.

“Nōku te hē,” says the man. I’m sorry.

I look up at him in surprise. The man wears a hat, pulled low. His beard is frosted with icicles as though he has been out in the freezing weather for a long time. He shivers uncontrollably; great juddering spasms travel up and down his body. His legs waver, weak from exhaustion.

“Atarangi… I’ve found you,” he says. There’s a desperate sound to his voice.

It takes me a moment to recognise him, and when I do I almost drop the bowl. It’s my mother’s brother, Uncle Hēmi!

Chapter 3


I get quite a shock when Atarangi and Hinewai stagger into the kitchen with a strange man who has to be helped to stay upright. Hinewai shouts immediately for my father. He comes running, alarmed by the panicked sound of her voice.

The man is clearly struggling, frozen with cold and completely exhausted.

Hinewai speaks with urgency, but too quickly for me to understand.

“Help us, Michael!” translates Atarangi. “Bring dry clothes and blankets.”

I rush to do as Hinewai asks. Father drags a chair in front of the fire for the man to sit and warm himself.

He’s in a bad way. Father and I help him remove his sodden garments and we dress him in fresh clothes and wrap him in three woollen blankets.

Meanwhile Atarangi boils a billy to fill the brass hot water bottle, which she then bundles in cloth. The man gratefully hugs it to his middle.

I prepare a small pot of porridge, thinking that it will warm him from the inside.

When we’ve done all we can and the man is out of danger, Atarangi takes me aside.

“His name is Hēmi. My uncle,” she explains. “I haven’t seen him for a long time. He left our home in Taieri more than a year ago.

“Why is he here?” I ask, but she only shrugs.

“I don’t know. But it must be urgent for him to risk so much.”

Hinewai sits beside Hēmi and helps him eat some porridge. Father sets down a cup of hot tea for him.

“Ngā mihi nui,” says Hēmi gratefully.

“Pai noa,” replies Father. You’re welcome. I see Hēmi’s eyes widen with surprise at hearing a white man speak his language.

It’s clear that Hēmi’s eaten nothing hot in a while. He gulps down the porridge with obvious pleasure.

Hinewai speaks to him quietly as he eats, and I realise she is telling him about the death of her husband – Atarangi’s father and his brother-in-law – because he is silent for a long time. I see his eyes well up, and a single tear escapes to roll down his cheek. He touches Hinewai’s face.

“Haere ate ki te kāika tūturu,” he says quietly. Atarangi tells me he is farewelling her father back to his true home.

When he has finished his porridge I take his bowl, and he stands as Hinewai makes the introductions. He is tall and muscular, and his face is decorated with tā moko, the traditional Māori tattoo. Where Hinewai’s moko is only on her chin, Hēmi’s covers his entire face; intricate, ridged curves and spirals that look to me like the patterns of nautilus seashells and unfurling punga fronds. They are spread across his forehead, cheeks, and nose, beautifully designed to match the contours of his face. Atarangi says tā moko tells the story of the person – their family, tribe, and place.

Towering over Hēmi’s head are his colours. They’re just like Hinewai’s and Atarangi’s, a fountain of many intertwined hues rising above him. But his ordeal has dulled them, and I can see the billowing deep red blotches throughout – the colour of exhaustion.

Atarangi says that my ability to see people’s colours is a gift. Everybody’s colours are different, and I’m still learning what they all mean. I can tell if someone is sad or happy, lonely or tired, just by looking at their colours. Hēmi’s are also striped with crimson streaks.

The colour of fear.

When Hinewai introduces my father I don’t understand everything she says to Hēmi, but I think she mentions my mother because I hear the Māori word for death – mate – and she points to me. When Hēmi hongis with Father and me, pressing his nose against ours, he holds there for a long time, and it strikes me as an elegant and heartfelt way to show his sympathy for us.

Hēmi then speaks to Hinewai, and his tone changes to one of urgency and concern.

He speaks quickly and I only catch certain words, but Atarangi tells Father and me what he’s saying.

“Hēmi says that our homeland is under threat. When he returned from the north, he was shocked to see that some sheep station owners – they’re known as the Wool Lords – are trying to claim our tribal land as their own. They’ve built fences, cleared trees, and moved thousands of sheep onto any land suitable for grazing, which includes that around our whare – our family home, which we’ve lived in for generations. When Hēmi approached them, they saw him off with rifles!”

Atarangi continues translating his story. Hēmi knew he needed help. Hearing that Hinewai’s husband had gone to the goldfields, followed soon after by Hinewai and Atarangi, Hēmi had left immediately, bound for Gabriel’s Gully.

When Atarangi finishes speaking, I glance at Father. His jaw is set in a grim line and he looks at Hinewai, waiting for her to respond. She’s furious, that much is clear. She has been through so much, first losing her husband because of the greed of the people who came in search for gold, and now she faces losing her home to those seeking another kind of fortune.

“Hoake tātou,” she says to Hēmi. Let us leave immediately.

Father rises to his feet.

“I’m coming with you,” he says. “I can help.”

Atarangi translates for her mother, who nods and takes my father’s hand.

“Michael, can you help?” says Father. “Bring the donkey around from the stables and load the tent and three swags. Atarangi, please pack enough food for three people for four days. We leave immediately.”

I look at him in surprise.

“You mean Atarangi and I aren’t coming with you?”

“Absolutely not,” he replies. “You’re too young to make the journey in this weather. Besides, someone must stay here with Siu. Close the hotel, stay inside, and keep warm. We’ll be back in two weeks – at the most.”

In less than thirty minutes everything is ready. To protect themselves from the biting cold, Father, Hinewai, and Hēmi have put on every piece of clothing they could find; they look like hunchbacks beneath all the layers. We’ve even put a thick woollen blanket under the donkey’s saddle to keep the creature warm. It’s laden down with their belongings and looks miserable in the falling snow.

Standing outside in the blizzard, they make their final preparations. I hug Father.

“How will you find the way?” I ask him, peering into the pale gloom. The hills around have disappeared in the storm.

Father pulls his compass from his pocket and shows me.

“I expect we’ll be making good use of this,” he replies. He’s attempting to sound cheery – for my benefit, I suspect – but I can hear the edge in his voice.

“Please be careful,” I implore.

He kisses my forehead, squeezes Atarangi’s hand, and like that, they’re gone. Atarangi and I stand there for a minute, which is all it takes for them to be swallowed by the mist and swirling snow.

Just as we’re about to go back inside, I hear a shout. Through the blizzard comes Siu. She’s covered in snow, her clothing frosted white. As she gets closer I see that she’s wild-eyed, panting hard, and in a panic.

“Your father,” she says to me. “Where is he?”

“He’s gone,” I reply. “He and Hinewai had to leave for the coast. They won’t be back for two weeks.”

Siu blinks, disbelieving. Then she sinks to her knees and a wail comes from her that sends a cold shiver down my spine.

“Baba!” she cries.

Children of the Rush (#2)

By James Russell

Published by Dragon Brothers Books

RRP: $22.00

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