With the Lost Legion in New Zealand
Chapter XI — Sport À La Lost Legion
Sport À La Lost Legion
I have previously asserted that this yarn is not meant to be a history of New Zealand wars, nor do I wish to harrow the tender hearts of gentle readers, should I be fortunate enough to secure any, by stories of savage bloodshed or by describing gruesome details of war to the knife. Yet, taking into consideration the astounding ignorance of most well-educated English men and women concerning the history of the principal colonies that now form the greater portion of the mighty British Empire, I think I may be pardoned for recounting a few scenes of the events, battles and hardships, willingly endured by the men who actually won those colonies and rendered them habitable for a civilised people. Nor do I think the men, rough, wild, undesirable ne'er-do-wells as they mostly were, who recklessly risked their lives for that purpose, should be entirely forgotten.
These scenes are not imaginary ones, evolved from my own brain, but real occurrences; and the men, whom I am trying to describe, actually lived, fought, drank, and were killed in the way I relate; alas, would that I had a more gifted pen and a more artistic touch to depict them, their reckless lives and their hard deaths.
However, as my pen is neither artistic nor gifted, nor even a particularly good one to write with, I page 184must jog on as best I can, in the same way my gallant O.C. did, when, short of men and with plenty of malignant, backbiting enemies in both Government and district, he made head against the hostile Hau Haus.
After the fight at Pungarehu, fortune seemed for a considerable time to have deserted us, which was not to be wondered at, for although the Government provided more men, and we were reinforced by various parties of volunteers, yet these recruits were, for the most part, new chums of a very inferior quality. Indeed, most of them, having been enlisted from among the scum and riff-raff of the big Australian cities, were naturally very different from those old hands whose services the idiotic Government had so cavalierly dispensed with, or who had been lost through the wastage of war; and I was soon to learn the awful difference of going into action with a lot of untrained, half-baked, raw hands, instead of well-trained, reliable men.
Again the new-comers could not stand the physical hardships of the work. They knocked up when marching and were not by any means dependable shots or bushmen. So that the campaign dragged, for although we made many attempts we never again succeeded in catching the enemy on the hop as we had done at Pungarehu. In fact, on one or two occasions, we received more than we gave, and although we did not, as yet, meet with any calamitous disaster, yet, at times, we had to quit the bush faster than we went in, having failed to do that which we went in to attempt, and these failures so bucked up the page 185Hau Haus that it enabled Titokowaru, a savage and very fanatical chief, to draw numbers of them to his flag, with whom for over two years he successfully opposed us, during which period he administered two very serious defeats to the colonial forces.
It was while on one of these numerous excursions I witnessed a somewhat extraordinary instance of presentiment of death, which, owing to the fact of the man who received the impression taking advantage of it, thereby dodged the catastrophe. Here's the yarn, deduct what moral you will.
Among the friendly natives was one named Winiata, who was distinguished for his great courage; and when, among a race noted for their bravery, a man becomes so distinguished, there can be no doubt of his intrepidity. In fact, not only by his own comrades, but also by the white men, and even by the Hau Haus, no mean judges of courage, he was regarded as the very incarnation of valour.
Now Winiata always led the van, and was the rear of the rear-guard in a retreat, and his numerous acts of dare-devil recklessness were the talk of both camps. Well, on one occasion, we were advancing to attack a place, when to everyone's astonishment Winiata hung back, and instead of being leading man enacted the part of a timid skulker. This surprised the O.C. so much that he asked the man what was the matter. Winiata, without hesitation replied: "I dreamt last night I was leading the van as usual, when we were ambuscaded and I was killed, the bullet striking page 186me on one hip and coming out at the other, so to-day I remain in the rear."
The column, at the time, was moving through dense bush, along a footpath so narrow we could only proceed in single file, and a short time after Winiata had unbosomed himself the enemy poured a volley into the head of it, killing the leading file. Whereupon Winiata rushed to the front and, pointing to the dead man, said to the O.C.: "Ah, that's the bullet which meant to kill me," and true enough the death wound that had killed his substitute was exactly similar to the one he had dreamt was to have finished himself off. After this all the other natives declared that Winiata's god was a very powerful one and that his mana (luck) was great.
I have, up till now, said but very little of the various ways in which we tried to amuse ourselves when resting in camp or, as we now were, marking time in our Hau Hau tail-twisting operations. True, we were much scattered, being located in different forts, but our O.C, fully recognising the necessity of allowing the men recreation, as all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, eagerly grasped every opportunity of affording the men any amusement that lay in his power. So that we indulged in an occasional cricket match, race meeting and athletic sports, with now and then a camp fire and sing-songs.
Some of the competitions were very good, as amongst such a mixed crowd as ours there were naturally some really good athletes, not only among the white men but also among the friendly natives, all of whom took a very keen interest in the events. page 187Of course, after one or two trials the crack men were discovered, but we had such clever handicappers that the interest in the various events was always kept up to the required excitement pitch, so necessary to render this form of sport attractive to the looker-on, and as there was much healthy rivalry between the various posts there was no chance of the general interest in these sports flagging.
It was through taking a very keen interest in my post's chances for distinction that I discovered a man who, had he been taken in hand and been well trained and taught in his youth, would I am sure have turned out to be one of the greatest athletes the world has ever possessed.
Strange to say the man himself, a London Cockney, was profoundly ignorant of his own capabilities, and it was quite by accident I discovered them. The way it was done is as follows.
A big athletic meeting was to be held at head quarters on Christmas Day, at which each station was to be represented, and the rivalry was not so much between individuals as it was between the various stations, one garrison against another, also trooper v. footslogger, and the men at my post were very keen.
We were, however, sadly in want of a sprinter and high leaper. I could run and jump a bit, but then I had been beaten so easily on a previous occasion at all these events that it was hopeless to expect me to win on the coming one. True, we had a most reliable man in Tim for the mile and the long jump, and although he also had been defeated before, still, on that occasion he had been page 188unfit, while now he was in splendid trim, so that we had great hopes of him pulling off his events, but I could offer no such excuses as I had been in splendid fettle and had done my very best, but had not succeeded in getting placed, as I had been fairly beaten by better men, and as I was by a long way the best man at the post things looked very black for us, and our hearts were very dark indeed.
Now among my men was one named Bright, who had been enlisted not so much for his fighting capabilities, for he was no good either in the pigskin or in the bush, but as a baker, and even as such he was a bad one. Up to date I had never taken much notice of the fellow, except perhaps on a muster parade, when I invariably had to check him for general untidiness, in fact the wooden way he slouched about the camp rather got on my nerves, and then his bread was often damnable.
One day, however, I happened to notice him on a bathing parade and was much struck by the muscular development of his legs and thighs, which without being abnormal had yet every appearance of possessing extraordinary nervous powers.
That evening we were practising sprinting, at which he was simply looking on, when turning to him I said: "How is it, Bright, you never compete with the others?" to which he answered:
"Well, sir, I never tried to run or jump in my life."
"Then," said I, "it's high time you did. Come and run over the hundred yard course with me and do your best so as to try and push me."
It could not have been called a fair race, as I was page 189dressed in flannels and canvas shoes, while he was togged in overalls with ammunition boots, and of course my experience gave me an immense advantage at the start, as when we jumped off I must have gained over three yards. I was ahead, as I expected to be, when I had covered fifty yards, and I expected to win easily, but all of a sudden he whizzed past me as if I had been standing still, and although I strained every nerve he ran clean away from me, beating me by fifteen yards or more. I was simply thunderstruck. I had run and been beaten often before by men whom I knew to be good men, but never had I been beaten like this, and turning to one of the sergeants, an old public school boy, I asked him how he accounted for it? To which he replied:
"There is only one way to account for it, sir. This fellow Bright is a perfect wonder. Why, sir, when you had covered forty yards he was ten yards behind you, then all of a sudden he seemed to start going and appeared to go faster and faster every yard he ran. By Jove! sir, if we had him at Lillie Bridge how he would astonish the world."
Here was the chance of our winning the short races at the approaching Christmas sports, so we promptly took him in hand to teach him to start, run straight and all the other wrinkles of the running track.
Then happy thought! Why the blazes should not this ignorant lout be able to jump as well as run? Faith it was worth while trying him, so I bullied him till he did so, and found out he jumped like a sea-sick kangaroo, with body and legs nearly straight. Teach the bounder to jump like a page 190Christian we could not, but by teaching him where to take off, and keeping him hard at it, by the time the sports drew near he could clear five feet six inches, which was good enough.
Well, this Johnny we kept dark, and all the men at my station saved their money and formulated plans to get a bit of their own back, as they all had lost heavily at the last sports, and they meant this time to plunder the Amalekites.
The man who was first favourite for the hundred yards and the quarter of a mile was a very smart young Australian who had run in good company over in Victoria. He had won both events at the last contest and as he, as well as two or three others, had beaten me easily then, and as all hands fancied I was still the best man at my station, the foot gangers thought we could have no chance, and were ready to plank their bottom dollar against our winning a single event.
The long-looked-for Christmas Day at length arrived, and as the Hau Haus were quiet all the men who could be spared from garrisoning the forts gathered together at headquarters. Now, the rule was that only two men from each station should enter for each separate event, so that when myself and Bright entered for the hundred yards, quarter of a mile and high jump it was considered our chance was nil, long odds being wagered against us. In fact Bright's slouching wooden appearance caused unbounded merriment with much rough banter.
The troopers, so as not to spoil the market, had deputed one of their number, who was supposed to possess great acumen and almost Satanic finesse, page 191to transact the wagering business on their behalf, those of them being present strolling about bewailing their station's lack of chance, and the wily one received very long odds against our winning a single event, being so cute that he filled his book before the sports started.
The hundred yards race was the first on the programme, for which event ten competitors toed the mark, and there was much chaff at the clumsy way Bright took his place. The pistol was fired, and we jumped off, Bright, of course, last of all, but before the ruck in which I was had covered thirty yards he rushed past us like an express engine, and at seventy-five yards had overhauled the leading man and challenged the young Australian, Duff, who, running first and thinking himself quite safe, was saving himself as much as possible for his other races. In a flash Bright took the lead from him and, to the unbounded astonishment of all hands, breasted the tape quite three yards clear in advance of Duff, who, when he had recovered from his amazement sufficiently to speak, ejaculated the word "D—n!"
Of course the footsloggers all swore it was a fluke and tried to account for their champion's defeat in various ways, with much vivid language, while Duff allowed he had been caught napping, and asserted that before such a thing should occur again he would jolly well go to—well, a warmer climate than even that of Australia—and that in the quarter of a mile he would make the ruddy dough-puncher long to immolate himself in his own blasted oven.
Just before the race I scratched, as I wanted to page 192see it run, as did most of the other men. It was Duff's best distance and we all knew he would try his utmost, and although I had great faith in my neophyte, yet it was a big order to expect him to beat a man with a known record such as Duff had.
Well, the pistol cracked and Duff gained a lot of ground at the start; nor did Bright, for the first fifty yards, seem to be able to set himself going, but then he all at once appeared to get into his stride. His pace increased in a marvellous manner, and he seemed to run up to the others with an ease and rapidity I have never seen approached, while before they reached the hundred-yard peg he had collared Duff, who was leading. The latter made a game effort to retain his place, and for perhaps ten yards or more did so, when Bright shot ahead, going faster and faster, and without an effort ran right away, winning easily by at least thirty yards.
This was a glorious victory, and when he had won the high jump, clearing five feet seven inches, one grim old Maori chief gravely asked me if I had imported the devil, and proposed that he should kill him off-hand, as in his opinion no such common personage as a cook or baker had any right to beat warriors or chiefs. He also stated he had for some time entertained grave doubts of Bright's respectability, as some hot bread he had eaten of Bright's making had given him a most infernal pain in the stomach, so at any rate he thought he might tomahawk him just a little bit in the way of utu (payment or revenge) for his dose of indigestion. But then again on second thoughts his tummie-ache was a thing of the past, his present need was tobacco, and as the fellow was one of my slaves, perhaps if page 193I handed him over a plug it might be as well to forgive and forget. Needless to say he received his plug.
That day was a big day for the troopers, as Tim won both the mile and the long jump, so after a good dinner my men returned to our fort weighed down with plunder which the wily one had extracted from the pouches of the footsloggers, and all confessed that even a rotten bad baker may sometimes prove useful.
Among a crowd like ours there were, of course, some very queer fish, men from every grade of society and every walk of life. To very many of these, society had said good-bye without regret, and yet we had men in our ranks who, but for a single failing, were fit to occupy any position in the beau-monde they had quitted for ever. Nor had they all been wrong uns; far from it, as many, like myself, had simply been born unlucky or had not the means to retain the positions in which they had been born.
One of the queerest of these fallen angels was a man who called himself Barney Fisher, or the Arapipi spider. Who or what he had been the Lord only knew, but he possessed gifts that would have made him a welcome guest in any country house in the world. A superb horseman and good at every outdoor game, he was equally proficient in those indoor pastimes that make a man like himself so valuable to a hostess, who finds it so hard to find amusement for a houseful of people on a wet day. He could paint a picture worth looking at, write a song and sing it, although the libretto, if similar to the topical chants he page 194composed for his comrades' benefit, would not have been tolerated for a moment, dance a breakdown or jig and drink ration rum by the quart without turning a hair, besides all which he could talk fluently on any subject in the world in most of the European languages and was as good-natured and obliging as it is possible for a man to be. Over and over again he received heavy remittances to take him home and on more than one occasion took his discharge for that purpose, but it was no good, he never got farther than the nearest town, where he could cash his draft, which being done he would paint that town crimson until his last shilling was blued and then return to the troop.
So used were we to these periodical absences that his horse and equipments were kept ready for him and he would be received back with open arms, one reason for which being that the said horse was such a fiend that no other man cared to groom him, much less ride him, although with Barney he was as quiet as a lamb.
Yes; the Arapipi spider was a queer fish, but we had one queerer still; a tall, thin slab of a fellow who called himself Limbs, and was yclept by his comrades the Duke of Limbs.
Standing over six feet three, he wore a close-shaved face, long as a child's coffin, the features of which always seemed set with such a look of intense melancholic disappointment that the observer would at once come to the conclusion that the wretched man had just murdered his father for his wealth, and had then only found wild-cat securities. Still he was a cheery chap in his own sorrowful way, and although he was never known to laugh, or even page 195smile, yet by his inadvertences he would cause amusement, or sometimes even trouble, by perpetrating acts which, if committed by an ordinary individual, would have stamped him as a malignant farceur or a practical joker suffering from liver.
He was, moreover, most good-natured, he would give away anything, but like the gifts of the Greeks his donations at times were dangerous to their recipients. Did he not on one occasion present old Paukino with a Tongeriro (a seidlitz powder, so called by the natives after a burning mountain that is always vomiting a column of steam), directing the ancient warrior to first swallow the powders and then drink a pannikin of water, a process that turned the respectable old man-eater into a human volcano of the most active description, and cost me a gallon of rum to pacify his infuriated relations, all of whom swore, and not without reason, that his Grace had bewitched the old fellow.
His Grace's strong suit, however, were his limbs, of which he had the most perfect control (hence his title), he being the most wonderful contortionist I have ever seen in my life, and he would frequently raise a laugh on parade, while sitting rigid in his saddle, by scratching the back of his head with his spurs, or by tying himself into a knot on some equally inappropriate occasion. He was checked frequently, but was such a good fellow, and made such splendid excuses when carpeted in the office tent, that he escaped without dire punishment, especially as the O.C., considering the men's lives were quite hard enough to be endured, set his face dead against drastic punish-page 196merits which would make them harder; but one day his Grace played a trick that might have caused serious trouble. It happened in this way.
I have mentioned in a previous chapter how, during the shindy at Pungarehu, we had captured nine prisoners, or rather nine Hau Haus had surrendered to the O.C. on his promise that their lives should be spared, and as it was a nuisance keeping these Johnnies alive in a frontier post it was decided to send them, for safe keeping, to Wanganui.
On the first night of their journey, themselves and escort were to sleep in our fort, at which the Colonel happened to be sojourning on the same night. Well, my guard took them over from the travelling escort, and they were confined inside a somewhat flimsy hut in the centre of the fort with a sentry inside to watch them, for which purpose a stable lamp was suspended from the roof.
This was by no means a safe prison, but, as all the rest of the detachment slept in the open surrounding them, there was no chance of escape, especially as they well knew if they tried to play monkey tricks it would be paramount to ordering their own funerals, besides which, they had sworn to the Colonel that they would make no effort to do so.
Well, the night waxed late; the camp, prisoners and everyone, with the exception of the guard, the Colonel, myself and two other officers being fast asleep. We officers were writing and drawing, in fact assisting the O.C. with despatches that had to be forwarded next day, when all at once we were disturbed by yells of terror and consternation. To seize our revolvers and dash out of the tent was the work of a moment, and we were in time to see page 197the men spring to their arms, while out through the flimsy walls of the raupo-built hut burst the yelling Hau Haus.
In a moment they were seized, in fact they made not the slightest attempt to run away, and in a few minutes were paraded before the indignant O.C., who sternly demanded, "What the hades they meant by making such an infernal clamour and trying to escape?"
To the charge of attempting to get away, a hoary-headed old cannibal offered an indignant denial, and as for the clamour and hut-breaking, that he declared was the Colonel's own fault, as why had he shut them up with the devil.
This defence amounting almost to a countercharge, made the Colonel open his eyes. He was essentially a just man, and his great knowledge of Maori character at once led him to believe that something out of the common must have happened, so he ordered the sentry to be called, who turned out to be the Duke of Limbs. On his stepping forth, the O.C. demanded the reason of the turmoil.
Now the Colonel was quite ignorant of the Duke's gifts, and he started back, rubbing his eyes, but saying nothing, for, as he afterwards confided to me, he thought he must have been mistaken when in the dim light it appeared to him that the trooper, standing rigidly to attention, all of a sudden elevated his right leg and scratched the back of his head with his spur, at the same time answering in a most lugubrious voice:
"Sir, I went on sentry at ten P.M. as second relief. I counted the prisoners, saw the lamp was trimmed and then as the roof of the whare was page 198too low for me to stand upright I seated myself with my back to the door and watched the natives. At eleven-thirty, sir, that old man woke up and looked at me, when he immediately started yelling, which roused the rest of the heathens, who all started yelling, jumping up at the same time and bursting through the walls of the hut. I gave the alarm and caught one by the leg, but he back-kicked me so hard in the midriff I was forced to let him go. I did not use my weapons as I feared injuring my own comrades, whom I knew to be outside, and whose presence rendered escape impossible."
"Quite right," quoth the Colonel, but after listening to a long speech from the ancient man-eater he continued: "It's very extraordinary, but the natives swear you are the devil and frightened them. What have you got to say to that?"
"Simply, sir," answered the unabashed trooper, "that their assertions are neither complimentary nor truthful, as if I was his Satanic Majesty I could find more congenial employment than being a trooper, and as for frightening them, I assure you, sir, I never moved from the moment I sat down."
Again the O.C. interpreted to the still trembling natives, and again an eloquent speech from one of them, at the end of which the Colonel, turning to Limbs, said:
"Sit down at once in the same manner you seated yourself in the hut."
At once the Maoris yelled and tried to push their way through the grinning troopers who hemmed them in, while the astonished O.C., who by the way had never seen a circus in his life, threw himself back in his chair and gasped.
"Sit down like that when you want to rest, do you? Then, in the name of all that is righteous, how do you recline when you want to sleep?"
Without a word, and seemingly without an effort, the noble Duke gave himself a twist and in the snap of a cap reversed himself so that he stood on his feet, with his western parts elevated in the air and his long, melancholic face upside down framed between his legs.
This transformation scene was greeted by another yell from the Maoris, while the perplexed O.C., opening eyes and mouth, ejaculated:
"Well, I am damned. For God's sake, man, get straight if you can," and then aside, "I wonder what in hades he will look like when he's dead." For in a moment a respectable, if sorrowful-looking, trooper was standing rigidly to attention before him. "Well," continued the Commandant, "I can't punish the natives, that's clear, nor can a camp be alarmed for nothing, so, Mr Burke, be good enough to see this man does nine days' pack drill, and if that does not keep him straight then lash a spare tent pole up and down his back bone—I fancy that will fix him; and now, sergeant-major, relieve this tired sentry, let the prisoners be taken back to the hut. Fall away, men; come, gentlemen, let us finish our work."