Sport 3: Spring 1989
Maurice Shadbolt — Monday's Warriors (from a work in progress)
Monday's Warriors (from a work in progress)
It was most of two weeks before his back quit weeping and scabs formed a reliable crust. On attentive Captain Clark's order he was free to roam an area not exceeding twenty paces from the hospital tent. Kimball eased himself gingerly into such sunlight as he could locate in a New Zealand May. He watched Mount Taranaki glimmer above dark forest and cooled his mind with cloud and bird. Something better than bile in his belly might also be helpful when his hour came. To this end he stealthily filled three canteens with rum from the hogshead which warmed sergeants and corporals. His steadfast face was reserved for Captain Clark.
'I suspect desertion no longer tempts you,' the captain observed.
'Not now, sir,' Kimball promised. 'The fact of the matter is that I got no home but the regiment, sir. My parents, they both caught a contagion. I never got on good with my brother and sister, and I don't know as I got any but buttonhole cousins alive. There's nothing back in Maine for me. I don't even remember Eastport right. There was ships, and a harbour, and Canada across the water when there weren't mist. The rest I don't remember at all.'
'Not the woods?' Captain Clark said gently.
'Nor the rivers,' Kimball insisted. 'Not even the lakes and islands.'
Kimball managed a crack in his voice and even a tear.
'We must put that to rights,' Captain Clark said.
'By talking more of Maine, sir?'
'By making more of the present, Bent. True that Our situation leaves something to be desired. The woods and waters may be wilder, but there are ferns and little streams. With serenity of soul you may yet reconcile yourself to your present lot.'
'The way I've heard it, sir, that might be time wasted. Men say we might not be in New Zealand much longer.'
'The fate of the fighting man, Bent. Always ready to travel where duty bids.'page 76
'Then it is true, sir?'
'And perhaps sooner rather than later.' '
'How soon, sir?
'Not next week, Bent nor even next month. But surely next year. This colony's politicians are pleading poverty. Some argue that they can police this place cheaper than we. Meanwhile we may be prevailed upon to scupper a few more rebels before bills fall due. Talking of which, tomorrow I am to scout to the south in anticipation of the next convoy passing through. I have instructed Corporal Flukes to give you release from hospital. You will be of my party.'
'As scout, sir?'
'Just so, Bent. The mission may give you more to think on than here.'
Kimball was not one to doubt it. 'Which way will we be scouting, sir?'
'To the south, for what it is worth. Toward Wanganui.'
Kimball was even more thoughtful.
'Furthermore,' Captain Clark said, 'the mission may help you establish a more attractive record with the regiment. There are some twenty-five lashes still in reserve.'
'I'm thinking on them, sir,' Kimball confessed.
'Capital,' the captain said. 'I shall see you a soldier yet.'
Colonel Hazzard was fond of saying that the British army was only as strong as its weak moments. Wistful Captain Clark might make a minute.
Four rode to the south. Two veteran scouts of the 57th named Fisk and Murphy jogged outside Kimball and Captain Clark. They kept a sulky distance, making their displeasure with the presence of the regimental Jonah plain. Their silences said they were cool about poetic officers too. Some of the coast route to Wanganui lay through untidy scrubland; some took in long beaches of black sand. Aside from villages lately looted and fired the landscape remained much as it was when God gave up on sour apples. Ferny forest spilled down steep gullies to the sea. The terrain, even where level, was never easy. At noon, having scouted ground to the limit of the eighth company's obligation, they rested their horses. Captain Clark used binoculars to consider the territory around. 'We can pronounce it safe,' he decided. 'You may smoke.'
Fisk and Murphy produced pipes. Bread, cheese and a rum ration page 77also appeared. Kimball was chosen to remain on watch while others rested. It was a bright day, with sharp wind, the mountain tall to the north, the coast empty to the south. Kimball had never looked on land more lonesome. A shiver grew in his gut.
Fisk put it in words. 'Sometimes, sir,' he was telling Captain Clark, 'I get the feeling there's always eyes in the hills. That we're watched all the way down here, and all the way home, with them waiting their chance.'
'The worst misfortune is that which never befalls us,' Captain Clark argued.
'If you say so, sir,' Fisk said, unconvinced.
'You may now take sustenance, Bent,' Captain Clark ordered,' and leave our diligent foe to Private Fisk.'
Kimball sat gratefully beside his commander. Rum did much to muffle his shiver.
'I trust this excursion makes you feel a shade more charitable toward the army,' Captain Clark observed.
'More than enough.'
'To Wellington, sir?'
'Now we are talking a hundred or two.'
'And all country like this, sir?'
'A shade more civilized to the south, beyond Wanganui. Colonists' dwellings become more conspicuous. And the natives more benign. What is your interest?'
'Knowing where we are, sir.'
'That is something you might well leave to me.'
'Yes, sir. And the South Island, that would be a fair bit further?'
'A march, Bent, of which Our Redeemer might be proud.'
'Our Redeemer, sir?'
'He walked, so far as was observed, a few yards of water. Not a score of miles.'
'Thank you, sir. It's all straight in my mind now.' The rum cached in his saddle bag should make the first hundred miles tolerable; nourishment for the next hundred would mean foraging and felony. The twenty nautical miles remaining should not slow a seasoned page 78stowaway. The first problem was whether his horse was spirited enough to outdistance the mounts of Fisk and Murphy. Pursuit by passionate Captain Clark had to be considered too. Also the velocity of shots discharged to his rear.
'It might not hurt,' Captain Clark observed, 'to make a more considered reconnaisance of this area. It would lend more credence to our report that the coast road remains peaceful. Fisk and Murphy, you shall remain on watch with the horses. Bent and I will venture inland and win a little height on the subject. We should not be longer than an hour. Should we suffer a problem, you will hear our shot.'
'Yes, sir,' Fisk said. His face was puzzled. 'It's not your usual form, sir. Is there some special reason?'
'Bent is,' Captain Clark disclosed, 'I think it time to break him in as scout. He may learn that there is less to fear than he supposes in New Zealand's wilds.'
'I see, sir,' Fisk said, and looked knowledgeably at Murphy.
Kimball looked even more knowledgeably at his feet
'Come,' Captain Clark urged. 'And do not forget your weapon.'
They climbed a long ridge, Kimball cautiously to the captain's rear. The lifting landscape left them breathless. Wiry vegetation had to be forced aside. Foliage whispered in gullies right and left. Water rang over rock and shingle. Fisk and Murphy, with the horses, were fast lost to sight. Even the coast was soon beyond greenery. At that point, in a burn by the bank of a stream, Captain Clark elected to pause. A Maori fire had stormed out of control there. Lifeless and largely limbless trees rose from terraces of fern and tough native grass.
'You see,' he proposed, 'it is all quite accommodating.'
'Yes, sir,' Kimball said, feeling a protective grip on his arm.
'One can breathe the silence,' Captain Clark went on. 'Listen, Bent. Listen.' .
Listening, Kimball was most aware of companionable breathing near his neck.
'This as far as we're going, sir?' he asked.
'I am making the point, Bent, that New Zealand woods may hold more than obstinate Maori rebels. That it may also well hold moments rich in revelation.'
'Yes, sir.' Kimball sensed something beyond his means approaching. Captain Clark was now stroking his arm.
'You shiver so,' he said with sympathy.
'Yes, sir.'page 79
'Perhaps you might care to tell me about it.'
'Nothing I can put in words, sir.'
'You know you have a friend in me, Bent.'
'I'm getting that feeling, sir.'
'A good friend, Bent. With your interests at heart.'
'I thought we was going higher, sir.'
'And we may well, Bent.'
'And making sure this territory safe, sir.'
'As indeed we are. But that is no reason not to rest our weapons and unbuckle a little. Garrison life is seldom conducive to privacy.'
'Not with the likes of Corporal Flukes, sir. No.'
'Corporal Flukes is a long way from here.'
'Yes, sir,' Kimball said with surprising regret. Captain Clark's hands were alarmingly intimate.
'We can unburden ourselves, Bent. Be ourselves, in short.'
Arranging his sword and revolver neatly on the grass, and similarly disposing of Kimball's carbine, Captain Clark began to unbuckle quite literally. Unbuttoning was soon in progress too.
'Sir,' Kimball protested, more or less.
'Quick,' Captain Clark commanded.
'Sir,' Kimball said again, with no useful result. His own belt was receiving attention.
'What is it, Bent?'
As Kimball's breeches sagged, he grabbed them up before full revelation. 'You might be yourself, sir. I don't know as I am.'
'Love begets love,' Captain Clark promised. 'It asks only faith, and faith asks firmness.'
He pressed warmly against Kimball, lacking nothing in firmness, and altogether trouserless. His breathing was even more earnest.
'Is that an order, sir?'
'By all means see it so,' the captain whispered.
Sinking under his superior, Kimball sent up a prayer for Flukes — and a firewood detail. His word against an intemperate sergeant's had gone for nothing; his word on unseemly sociabilities with a captain would likely count less.
At that point, confined by his commander, Kimball's left eye was taken by a dead and darkly weathered tree to the side of the clearing. For one thing, it was sprouting limbs, then something similar to a human head. For another, it was raising an article roughly like a firearm. It looked for all the world like a murderous Maori warrior.page 80
Then it wonderfully was.
Captain Clark mistook Kimball's cry as masculine ardour and answered with an endearment. The Maori tree, still in Kimball's view, was given further time to place a telling shot. Even Kimball's second anguished shout did not divert Captain Clark. he firearm then gave up flash and smoke. This spurred the discharge of two or three other weapons in the vicinity. Captain Clark's mission in the woods ended inelegantly; it was he who now yelped as a bullet clipped his exposed rear. There was the wind of other shot into surrounding scrub and fern. An imperial arse made a rousing target.
'Dear God,' Captain Clark said, clutching up trousers and weaponry. There was a long moment before Kimball persuaded his legs to answer the helm. The Maori fire was from inland. He pointed his feet seaward.
'Wait,' Captain Clark pleaded.
Kimball looked back with reluctance. Captain Clark, in mounting panic, was holding his trousers high, wheeling wildly, presenting his revolver toward all possible points of menace. A second shot undid him more damagingly; blood surged from a shoulder wound and coloured his tunic. The revolver fell from his limp hand. Captain Clark, after teetering, dropped too. He looked in appeal to departing Kimball.
'Where is your loyalty, Bent?' he gasped.
Kimball hesitated. Captain Clark became bolder.
'Answer their fire,' he ordered. 'Give fight like a Briton.'
Circumstances allowed Kimball little opportunity to argue that Maine no longer bred loyal Britons, nor to announce that the sour Yankees of Washington County had fought the King's bastards back into Canada with flintlocks, pikes and pitchforks, and taken scalps too. Any thought of a sentimental farewell was halted by a red streak racing along Captain Clark's blond scalp. As Kimball shortened the distance between himself and the nearest vegetation, he heard the captain begin to sob. Then he was aware of no sounds save his own. There were scarring encounters with low branches and crippling connections with logs; evil foliage lashed his face. Only one shot passed near; he deployed himself even more resourcefully in a downhill direction. He imagined he heard a faint cry, perhaps Captain Clark's last as a tomahawk took him, but the fancy was not to be lingered on. Tumbling over a sheer bank, rolling muddily to its foot, he met Fisk and Murphy making a slow advance uphill with carbines cocked.
'They got the captain,' Kimball shuddered.
'Maoris?' Fisk asked.page 81
'Over yonder,' Kimball said.
'Something wicked,' Kimball explained.
'A bad business,' Murphy muttered. 'Losing a captain.'
'Worse is a whole patrol,' Fisk concluded. He looked coolly at Kimball. 'Where's your gun?'
Kimball found no quick answer.
You cut and ran,' Fisk decided. 'You left the captain to it.'
'There'll be questions,' Murphy darkly foresaw. 'An inquiry.'
There was just zeal between Kimball and his next arrest. 'He sent me to fetch you fast,' he announced. 'An order.'
'You just said they got him,' Fisk argued.
Pinned down, that is,' Kimball said patiently. 'They got him fairly pinned down. Last I saw, he was holding them off. He told me to fetch you and look to the horses.'
Fisk gazed at Murphy. Murphy gazed at Fisk.
'Orders are orders,' Kimball said firmly. 'If there's questions I'd have to report what Captain Clark ordered.'
'Not without I'm in more trouble,' Kimball said. 'I know my duty.'
That turned the tide. Murphy. and Fisk could shoot Maoris or be shot. The other possibility, not to be thought, was the silencing of Kimball.
'Then look to the bloody horses,' Fisk said sourly. 'Bring them up fast.'
'I don't like this at all,' Murphy said. 'We been caught with our pants down.'
Kimball thought better of informing Murphy further on that score.
'I heard backs to the wall is when Britons fight best,' he said.
'It's gone queer quiet.' Fisk noted. 'No more shots.'
'Like I said,' Kimball insisted, 'he was holding them off. He might have them sized. Maybe they ran.'
He continued downhill with care. Murphy or Fisk might yet find it better to place a bullet in his back than join battle on behalf of Captain Clark. When he had the horses in sight, Kimball began sprinting. He looked back the once to see Fisk and Murphy warily entering the forest. The shooting began soon afterwards. Less easy to predict was the wheeze of a tired bullet across Kimball's path as he arrived at the horses. It meant that there was a divided party of Maori afoot in the area. Some had made a meal of Captain Clark, and were now mincing Fisk and Murphy; the others were heading page 82feloniously for the horses and saw Kimball as a spoiler. He unhitched his horse, hauled himself into the saddle, and pointed the beast in a direction other than that from which bullets were beginning to whine. One warmed his right ear; he crashed his horse to the left. He was aware of grass and greenery roaring away on one side, cliffs and bright sea on the other. Whether he was travelling toward the port of Wanganui or that of New Plymouth was now of no moment; a harbour in Hades looked likelier. Passing Maori shots, backed by unsociable cries, caused Kimball to swerve his horse in several directions. He guessed he had a hundred yards on his pursuers, at least until they mounted the captive horses. Altogether too late he observed a deep and unbridged gully ahead. There was no room to beat a retreat; it was yards too wide to leap. His horse baulked, snorted, slithered in soft ground, and despite its best intentions hurtled into the gully with a crack of equine bone. Kimball heaved himself from under the grieving beast and reviewed his situation so far as safety allowed. His carbine was abandoned beside Captain Clark. Even with a weapon a last stand would be unpromising. He unfastened and grabbed up his saddle bag, counted the canteens within intact, and then headed up the gully, between boulder and water, toward the best looking trees.
Half his life later the Maoris quit circling their fresh horses, whooping, and discharging shots into foliage. If their thought was to flush their quarry from cover, they were too hopeful by far. Numb Kimball was unable to expose himself sufficiently to pass urine with comfort. Among the firearms they were discharging were carbines just acquired from the 57th Regiment. The quality of Captain Clark's sword was being proven on saplings. Parting leaves, he watched the Maoris finally agreeing to call him a lost cause. When their hoofbeats were distant, he lowered himself from a branch, sank in a sea of sodden leaves, and sighed. Duty said he should find the cadavers of Fisk, Murphy and Captain Clark and confirm their decease. He saw no joy in dwelling on events. There was worse than losing a patrol single-handed; colonels mislaid regiments in less time than it took them to lunch. Not before time, Kimball remembered the canteens in his saddle bag. Provided he met no further commotion, his soldiering days were done. He drank to that, until the rum rose to a rewarding level in his gut. So much for Private Bent's last fight. He drank to that too.
The book, Monday's Warriors, was first published in 1990 and is currently available as part two of The New Zealand Wars Trilolgy, David Ling Publishing, 2005.