EXCERPT: Lifeblood by Lee Murray

I’m very excited to bring you an excerpt from Lifeblood, a story I love written by an author from across the dutch, Lee Murray. Her depiction of colonial New Zealand is just bloody magnificent. Without further waffle, go on, get stuck in.

Lifeblood

Lee Murray

Nikola Silich drove his gum-spear into the ground and let it stand upright while he bent to lift the clod from the ditch. Crouched in the trench, he weighed the blackened lump in his hand, then rubbed at it with his thumbnail. What would he find beneath the grunge? Would there be a droplet of the kauri’s lifeblood, a golden bead of tree-sap, petrified for years and years beneath the soil and turned as dark and rich as good wine?

His heart skipped and he breathed deep, his nostrils filling with the smoke of burning mānuka bushes. In his head, he whispered, Please, let it be good.

The size wasn’t bad. Not massive—Nikolai had heard tell of a slab of gum the size of three well-fed men—but it was big enough to cover Nikola’s palm. Shaped like a half-moon, it was encrusted with debris. It would need lots of scratching and scraping by the fire to free it of its rind before Perkins, the storekeeper, would condescend to swap it for supplies. Taking out his penknife, Nikola gouged the surface of the nugget, cutting away a patch for a better look. Underneath the grime, the resin was golden and pure.

Nikola smiled. These Northland swamps were full of kauri amber and all you had to do was dig it up. British and Americans couldn’t get enough of it for polishing their fancy carriages, although they needed deep purses, because the copal was fetching a colossal £43 per ton. He chuckled. It certainly beat being back home in Vrgorac, where the grapes were rotting on the vines.

His stomach growled. Where was Perkins? Still no sign of the storekeeper’s wagon. No matter. Nikola’s day was made. Even after paying the week’s bills, there’d be enough to buy him a good bit of lamb. He’d get himself some tea; soap too. A few more nuggets like this one and he’d have enough to send home for a bride.

Furtively, Nikola glanced about him. The Chinaman was digging for gum just twenty yards off. His head bent to the task, he wasn’t looking Nikola’s way.

Good.

Working quickly, Nikola knocked the biggest clumps of dirt off his prize, slipping the nugget into the pikau-sack slung over his shoulder before he straightened. The gum fields were full of scum: runaway militiamen and drifters, but there was something especially unnerving about that Chinaman with his slanted eyes and wide smile. He was everywhere and nowhere at once. A dark scurrying thing, like a roach. Nikola didn’t trust him.

“Look out,” said his friend and compatriot, George Unkovich, from an adjacent trench. “Here comes trouble.”

Nikola looked up. A couple of the local constabulary were making their way across the scrublands. The pair skirted the patches of mānuka burn-off, walking with the swagger of men accustomed to getting their own way. Word about the settlement said the younger one was decent enough, but his senior, a fat balding man named Carter, was a mean-arse son of a bitch.

George slapped the dust from his trousers. “Now, what do you reckon they’ll be wanting?”

“Dunno. Guess we’re about to find out.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t good news; Nikola had never seen them carry arms before. He freed his spear and climbed out of the trench.

“You there! Dallys,” the constable said. “You need to clear off.”

Nikola started. “What? Why?” he sputtered. “We’re not bothering anyone.”

Carter sniffed. “It’s the Kauri Gum Industry Act, lad. Came into force yesterday, didn’t it? So if you want to work here, you’re going to need to get yourself a licence.”

“What’s this about a licence?” asked Milos Vasyl, joining them from another ditch. “We never needed one before.”

“You gotta see Perkins at the store,” the young constable said. “He’ll give you a paper to sign. Then you pay over a quid, and Bob’s your uncle.”

“Bob’s your uncle,” George echoed.

Except it wasn’t that simple. A pound was a lot of money, even for a gumdigger. And Nikola still had bills to square. Squinting, he looked across the swamp at the men still at work. “You kicking everyone off? Or just us Dalmatians?”

The younger man lowered his eyes. “We’re telling everyone,” he mumbled.

“What about the Chinaman?”

“We’ll be getting to him,” Carter said.

“I don’t see the Brits leaving,” Nikola replied.

Carter raised the ancient musket and pointed it at Nikola. “You giving me trouble, Austrian?”

“No, trouble here,” George said quickly. He clasped Nikola’s shoulder, holding him back. “A pound, though,” George said, sucking air through his teeth. “You have to admit, that’s lot of money.”

The constable shrugged. “Not my problem, is it? I don’t make the laws, sonny. I just enforce them. Anyway, you should count yourself lucky. He jerked his head toward the Chinaman. The government makes their lot pay £100 before they’re even allowed off the boat. Prime Minister Seddon won’t let them bring their wives with them, either. Good thing, too or the country would be overrun with the yellow devils…”

Gripping his spear, Nikola stepped towards the trench. “We’ll see Perkins for your licences later.”

Carter fired the musket at the sky. The roar split the air, making Nikola’s ears ache. All around them, men looked up from their work.

“If you want to dig gum, you’ll see Perkins now,” Carter said when the smell and the noise had died away. His voice was calm, but the menace remained.

“You want us to go right now?” George asked. His jaw twitched.

Carter tilted his head to one side. “It’s like I said: law’s the law, isn’t it?”

It was close to an hour’s walk into town. They’d never make it back before the sun went down. Seemed they were done for the day. While Milos went off to spread the word, Nikola and George collected up their belongings. They didn’t have much: a spear and spade each, and the pikau-sacks they carried on their shoulders.

The constable and his man hovered near the ditch. When Nikola and George were about to leave, Carter stepped out in front of them. “Leave the bags, Dallys.”

Nikola made to move around him. “No. We’ve little enough. What’s in here is mine.”

But the fat constable shifted his finger on the trigger. “What’s in there is stolen goods. You dug up that gum without a licence.”

“It’s only one day’s takings!” George complained.

Carter thrust the barrel at George’s stomach. “Yes. Be a shame to die for a day’s takings.”

His nostrils flaring, George gave in, scattering his gum on the ground. “There you can have it, but I’m keeping the bloody bag.”

“Now yours,” Carter said, swinging the musket towards Nikola.

Nikola frowned.

“Take it from him, Jones,” Carter said, jerking his head.

Read the rest of Lifeblood in GdM#19

Head on over to our catalogue page and get this story, and much much more in Grimdark Magazine Issue #19.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.