With the Lost Legion in New Zealand
Chapter IV — I Join the Lost Legion
I Join the Lost Legion
It was on a lovely afternoon that the old tub St Kilda, crowded with men and looking far from safe, steamed slowly out of the harbour and made for Wanganui. Fortunately the weather was very fine and calm, so next morning we were off the heads at the mouth of the river, where we received orders to proceed farther up the coast to the Patea River, close to the mouth of which the camp at Patea was situated. This was very fortunate for me, as I now should be landed right at the front, where General Chute was himself in command, and Colonel McDonnell was also present. The bar across the mouth of the Patea River is a very bad one, only to be negotiated by boats or small steamers at high tides, and during calm weather.
We were, however, lucky, and crossed it in safety, anchoring shortly afterwards in front of the settlement and camp, where I, as I was still my own master, at once went on shore, landing in the midst of turmoil and bustle that made it very difficult to gain any information. It was evident to me that some expedition on a large scale was contemplated, as strings of pack horses, soldiers, Rangers and a good few Maoris jostled, shouted and worked.
At last I managed to get hold of a sergeant of the 57th, who, as he had evidently been lately page 55wounded in the arm, was willing to converse, and asked him to direct me to the General's quarters. He informed me that the General had gone on to a new camp farther up the coast, with a strong party of the 14th Regiment, Colonials and friendly Maoris; that there had been some sharp fighting lately, and that his own O.C., Lieutenant-Colonel Butler, was in camp, but leaving with a strong detachment of his regiment some time during the next twenty-four hours.
As I had a letter of introduction to this officer I determined to call on him and try to get some definite information, so proceeded to his camp, where I was fortunate enough to find the gallant lieutenant-colonel for the moment disengaged. He received me very kindly, and told me Colonel McDonnell was in camp, having been wounded by a ball in the foot at Putahi a few days previously, but that, far from lying up, he insisted on accompanying the field force that was to operate north of the Patea River. He also informed me that if I wished to join it, no time was to be lost, as within the next twenty-four hours the whole of the men to complete the General's column would leave the base camp, and he very kindly offered to guide me over to McDonnell's lines and introduce me.
This offer was, of course, too good to refuse, and in a few minutes I found myself face to face with the man who had done perhaps more Maori fighting than any other in the country, and who was in the future to be the chief factor in eventually putting a stop to the war.
Colonel McDonnell was a big, powerful man, who sported a heavy moustache, with large, bushy page 56whiskers and eyebrows; fromunder the latter looked out a pair of glaring eyes, while the expression of his face was that of stern determination, almost pitiless, and you could see, when in motion, every movement denoted strength and activity. I had heard many yarns about him during the last few days, and they all bore witness to his wonderful knowledge of the natives, his courage and endurance, while he was accredited with having killed, in single hand-to-hand rights, ten Maoris. He had been wounded a few days before, but had no intention of going on the sick list, and when we were announced was engaged in earnest conversation with several Maoris. Still, on hearing Colonel Butler's name, he ordered us to be at once admitted.
In a few words the Colonel stated our business, and I presented the Defence Minister's letter, which he hurriedly read, glancing occasionally at me over the paper. Then he laughed and said something to the natives in Maori which seemed to amuse them. Then, turning to me, he remarked: "Well, Mr Burke, you wish to join me and see some fighting. Very good, you are just in time. We start at two A.M. to-morrow morning. I will put you in the way of gratifying your desires. The first thing to be done is for you to sign your attestation paper, etc. Orderly, go and bring Mr Roach here."
In a few moments a tall, powerful man, some thirty years old, entered, who looked as hard as nails.
"Oh, Roach," said the Colonel, "this is Mr Burke, who has come from England to see some righting, and wishes to join us. Be good enough page 57to attest him and his companion, attach them to your own company and let them go with us to-morrow. And now, Colonel Butler, I have put your friend in the way of seeing some fighting, whether he will enjoy the road that leads to it remains to be proved."
With a good-natured nod to me, and a "So-long, Colonel," to my companion, the interview terminated, and we left the tent. After I had thanked Colonel Butler for his kindness we also parted, and I accompanied my new officer-to-be to the office tent of the corps, where in ten minutes myself and Tim had signed away our liberty for three months, or six if required, in the Forest Rangers, and had been served out with carbines, belts and pouches. We drew nothing else from store as we preferred to use our own revolvers, and, thanks to the advice of Hutton and West, I had purchased all the other articles necessary, of better quality, in Wellington.
After a few words of instruction and advice from Mr Roach we were handed over to the sergeant-major, who took us to the lines, and we were told off to a tent and mess, when I was glad to find the man in charge of the former to be Hutton.
I have already described, en bloc, the men composing the Rangers, but I think my tent companions deserve a word or two individually, especially as you are already acquainted with myself, Egan and Hutton.
Now the most important man in a mess is the cook. Of course in an irregular corps everyone has to bear a hand and take his turn, the consequence being that the food you have to eat is neither tempting nor palatable, but occasionally page 58one man shines out, pre-eminently superior to the rest, when he is at once handed over the big iron ladle and enthroned cook. A cook must be born, not made, and when in a mess a man is discovered who has a knack of making a good meal out of nothing he is indeed a treasure. Such a one we possessed, for no sooner had myself and Tim conveyed our scanty belongings from the St Kilda to the tent than the dinner call went, and I was glad to hear it, albeit doubtful of being able to procure the wherewithal to satisfy a remarkably sharp appetite.
"Come on, Burke," shouted Hutton; "just in time. Squat down on your blankets and buckle to." And no sooner had I taken my seat than two men entered bearing a steaming pot and a bucket full of tea.
In a moment these were placed on the ground, each man dipping his tin pannikin into the bucket and securing his allowance of sweetened though milkless black liquid, on the top of which floated innumerable small sticks, which caused the said liquid to be called, through the forces, post and rail tea. In the meantime the piece of plank that served as a lid had been removed from the pot, when at once a goodly odour filled the tent, and on being handed a deep tin plateful, I found the taste to more than justify the scent.
But the cook himself! He was a big, raw-boned Frenchman from the south of France, bearded like a pard, his open and tattered jumper revealing a huge crucifix tattooed on his chest, while his long hairy arms and huge hands were also covered with red and blue figures. The only other garment page 59he wore was a greasy, ragged shawl, worn very short, and fastened round his waist by a belt in which was thrust a murderous-looking knife. Head, feet and legs were bare, the former being covered with a thatch of long, thick black hair, and the latter with a skin nearly burnt black by exposure to sun and weather.
No sooner had he served out his delicious ragout, with a big iron ladle, than he squatted down alongside his companion and fed with him out of the pot, the two combined making a picture that if painted would have been received in any art gallery as a study of gnomes feeding. For his mate, the man who had brought in the tea bucket, was, as far as dress and appearance went, his exact duplicate, though not of the same nationality, as he was a Levantine Greek who, although a tall, wiry man, was by no means as big or powerful as his French partner.
These two beauties were presented to me as Pierre De Feugeron and George Kantuarius, and were as extraordinary a half section as I have ever tumbled across. Each man, in his youth, had been a sailor, Pierre having originally started as a French naval man, George probably as a pirate, to which latter profession, at the time I met them, if one could judge by appearances, they both seemed fully qualified, notwithstanding the fact that Pierre, especially after his tongue had been loosened with a tot or two, always asserted that he had, at one time, been chef de cuisine to the French Admiral commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, and had on more than one occasion cooked dinner for the Emperor himself. page 60Certainly he was the most wonderful cook, though how he came to abandon that profession was always a mystery he would never divulge. He and George had been mates for years, having met in Central America, where they had served together under Walker and Garibaldi. They had drifted over to New Zealand with a cargo of mules, had joined the Rangers, and were here. I shall relate more of them later on.
The man who squatted opposite to me was also a man to be noticed. He likewise had evidently been a sailor, belonging to that class that is now extinct, and looking at him as he swallowed his food my thoughts at once flew back to Drake, Morgan and the Buccaneers, and I easily pictured to myself my new comrade serving on some old-time ship that hoisted the Jolly Roger. He was about five feet ten inches in height, but of enormous breadth of shoulder and chest; the latter, like his face and immensely long and muscular arms, burnt mahogany colour, were covered with cicatrices of ancient knife and bullet wounds, while with an enormous hand grasping an iron spoon, which it almost hid, he shovelled his food into his capacious jaws with an enjoyment and sound that reminded me of a half-starved hound gulping at a trough.
Still, when he all of a sudden paused and looked at me I saw he had the wide-open blue eye, the frank, fearless look, and the determined mien that stamped him as a chip of the old English block grown in Devon, that county that has bred so many gallant hearts, gentle and simple, who have done so much for the honour of our glorious old flag.page 61
Yes, Jack Williams was a Devonshire man who, having been born within sound of the sea, had taken to it, and followed it all his life, most of which had been passed on the South Seas. Jack had put in many and very wicked years among the Islands, upon the Pacific slope, and even as far north as China. He had been a sandalwood trader, an opium smuggler, with more than likely a turn of piracy added, a blockade runner, a blackbird catcher, and had shipped in every desperate and bloody adventure that had been perpetrated on the coast, and in Central America, till at last he had drifted over to New Zealand and brought up in the Forest Rangers.
Of the other two members of the mess, one, named Buck, was a typical digger, who had followed the gold for years, and was now putting in a few months with the Rangers on the chance of striking something good in the hitherto un-prospected country over which he might be called on to scout or fight during his service. He was a quiet, reserved man, but a good comrade, who seldom went on the bust, and was not rowdy when he did so. He had been brought up as a gamekeeper in Sussex, and had emigrated to Australia during the great gold rush to that country in 1856.
The remaining man was one of the many mysteries in that polygenous corps. He called himself Smith. That he had once occupied a very different position in life was evident, and must have, at one time, made a considerable reputation at one of the Varsities. What he had been we never learned, but he possessed page 62the most varied education, not only being conversant with ancient literature, but having a marvellous knowledge of mediaeval and modern writers, and I have never met a man who could spout so readily any ancient or modern prose or poetry. He also possessed an unquenchable thirst, and would go to any extreme to obtain liquor, drinking any spirits he could get by the pannikinful until he became overcome, ranting the whole time passages from Shakespeare, Racine, Homer or Horace with equal facility. When sober he was of a saturnine disposition, rarely speaking to anyone, but was the very devil in action, and could stand any amount of hardship.
Well, this queer crowd sat round the tent devouring Pierre's excellent ragout with iron spoons, the said spoons, together with iron three-pronged forks, our sheath knives and our tin plates, comprising all our table equipments. Very few remarks were made during the repast, but when it had concluded and George had cleansed with sand the greasy utensils, Hutton drew out, from his roll of blankets, a bottle of rum and a bundle of cheroots, which he placed by the pole of the tent.
"Here you are, boys," said he. "I brought these up from the canteen so as to welcome the new chums. You will find both the cheroots and men all right, so sling round the pannikins, Pierre, and let's drink them luck." This was promptly done, and after the bottle had gone round conversation became general.
I began by congratulating Pierre on the wonderful dish he had given us, and told him it page 63reminded me of a plat I had partaken of in Marseilles.
In a moment he was off. "Oh, the beautiful Marseilles, and does Monsieur know Marseilles, perhaps Monsieur also speaks French?"
This I allowed was correct, and in a moment he burst out with a volubility that none but his own countrymen can equal, and was going ahead nineteen to the dozen when Jack brought him to with a growl like an enraged lion.
"'Ere stash it, yer darned frog-eater. This 'ere's an English ship an' yer don't jabber yer dago lingos aboard us."
Pierre answered with the snarl of a wild cat, but the row was fortunately cut short by a bugle blowing the assembly, which necessitated us all falling in.
It was not for a long parade, however, we were required, but only to warn fifty of us, whose names were read out, to hold ourselves in readiness to parade at one A.M. next morning for field duty, and that ten men, who were to act as scouts, were to fall in at sunset.
Among the latter I was rather surprised to hear the names of Pierre and George called, but was delighted, when my own and Tim's, together with the rest of our mates, were included in those composing the main body.
No sooner was the parade dismissed than we set about making preparations for the march, and it may be as well here to give you some idea of our armament and outfit.
The Rangers were, at this time, armed with a page 64breech-loading carbine of the most primitive pattern. It was loaded with a cartridge the powder of which was contained in a thin skin bag at the base of the bullet, and when loading in a hurry it was quite on the cards you burst the skin and spilt the powder. Then you had to fit on a cap, and after you had the weapon loaded you were more likely to miss a church two hundred yards distant than hit it. Heavy muzzle-loading revolvers, tomahawks and sheath knives completed our outfit of lethal weapons, and every man had to carry one hundred carbine cartridges and thirty revolver ones. Besides this, a man had to hump his swag (carry his pack), the amount and weight of each swag depending entirely on the strength and ability of the humper and the country over which it had to be humped. We had no transport of any kind nor knapsacks, so whatever we carried was wrapped up in our blankets, which were rolled, drum-shape, and suspended up and down our backs by straps over the shoulders, but not worn across the chest, this method giving free play to the arms; but it required a man to be square-shouldered and not shaped like a soda-water bottle.
It must not be imagined there was any hard-and-fast rule or uniformity required as to how the Rangers carried their packs, or even if they carried any at all; in fact the only uniformity required was the blue jumper and carbine, all the rest was left to the man himself, who could go as he darned well pleased. Boots were not considered essential, nor was the pattern of shirt or shawl taken into consideration, very many men, like page 65Pierre and George, never wearing boots nor carrying blankets during the summer months.
It will therefore be thoroughly understood that the Rangers were not for show, and that the gilt and gorgeous panoply of war was as absent from their ranks as hymn-books.
In accordance with Button's advice we at once started making our preparations, which were as follows:—Our English clothes were stripped off, and everything we had that we did not intend to take with us was packed in a canvas kit-bag and stored. The expedition was to be made on foot, so discarding our trousers we donned the shawls and were instructed how to wear them. Flannel shirts, our blue jumpers, smasher hats, strong laced boots and worsted socks completed our garbs. Then the blankets were packed. Pierre had drawn four days' rations for each man, and proceeded to distribute them; mine consisted of four pounds of cooked salt pork, four pounds of biscuits, a small tin of tea and sugar mixed, and a smaller tin of pepper and salt mixed. A spare shirt, a pair of socks and a few odds and ends completed my outfit. All these, with the exception of the pork and one day's biscuit, which went into the haversack, were rolled up tightly in the blanket, and the pekau straps (shoulder straps) carefully adjusted; then after we had had some food and tea we lay down to get what rest we could before the fall-in went.
It was some time before I dropped off to sleep, but I seemed only to have slept a moment when I was aroused up by Tim, and it took me a minute or more to pull myself together. I found the page 66other fellows sitting up, each with a pannikin of steaming cocoa in his fist, and, sleepy as I still was, I soon joined them.
Presently bugles began to sound all over the camp, and Hutton growled out, "There they go. That's the way the Maoris are informed of our movements."
Pierre and George had disappeared, and Hutton informed me they, being the best scouts in the corps, had left camp at dark, and that by this time they would be miles away along the road we were to travel.
We soon finished our cocoa, pannikins were slung on the belts, swags and belts were buckled on, carbines picked up, and we were ready for the word to fall in.
At two P.M. sharp the word was given, and we fell in without any bugle blowing or noise of any sort; every man knew his place in the ranks, so there was no roll-call, numbering off, or proving the company. Mr Roach silently walked along the line, then at a whispered word of command we formed fours and moved out of camp as silent as a lot of ghosts. Heavily loaded as we were, we pushed on fast along the rough trail, which in places led us through deep sand, very fatiguing to march over, no conversation or smoking being allowed, and as it was very dark we stumbled frequently.
Unaccustomed as I was to carrying a pack, I soon began to feel the discomfort of it, but of course said nothing. I must break myself into it, and till then must grin and bear it. Another thing that added to my discomfort was, I had only landed a few days previously from a long voyage, page 67so was not in good fettle for foot slogging, and I was very glad when at daybreak a halt was called and we were given a quarter of an hour's spell.
The moment we halted Tim was alongside me. "Is it getting on all right ye are, Mr Dick?" quoth he. "Sure yell be finding the pack and pouches bothersome at first, but glory be to God ye'll soon get the hang of thim, and, Mr Dick, dear, yer feet are not blistered, are they? For sure it's the heels of yer socks I rubbed well with fat, I did, and a quartermaster's tot of rum I soaked into yer boots, I did, so plase God your feet will harden widout blistering, they will, and I filled both the flasks wid the crater, I did, so if it's a nip you are wanting, sor, sure it's convanient at all times, thank the Lord."
I had barely time to assure the good fellow I was all right when the word was again given to march, and we started at a slinging pace to complete the remainder of the journey to the new camp at Kumikumiti, where the General and the advanced party, destined to make the expedition, were.
As the daylight increased we were able to get a look at the country we were marching through. On our left lay the sea, the road running through sand-hills covered with stunted manuka bushes, fern and rough wiry grass, and on our right lay a chain of hills covered with bush, but the eyes only glanced over these, for in a moment they centred on the glorious mountain in front of us, that, rising in its lonely grandeur, formed a picture none who have ever seen are likely ever to forget. Of course I allude to Mount Egmont, the glory of the page 68west coast, and very beautiful indeed it looked that morning, with the rising sun shining on its splendid peak, while its densely bushed slopes fell gracefully away from it, fold on fold in masses of light and dark green. But mark time, Dick, you can no more do justice to that lovely spectacle than you can fly.
"Pretty picture, Burke," said a voice alongside of me, and turning I saw Mr Roach was marching on my outer flank.
"Yes, sir," I answered; "a very lovely picture, and what a magnificent mountain!"
"Yes," he replied. "We shall know more of that mountain before we have finished with it, and perhaps many of us will remain on its shoulders and foot-hills for ever, as they are going to be the battle-ground for a year or more, and many a weary day and night's march we'll have over them, untrodden as yet by foot of white man. Mr Burke, I want to give you a tip or two about bush fighting, and if that's your comrade alongside of you, it's as well that he should also listen. Well, the first thing you have to remember in bush fighting is, that you must learn to work independently, as every man has more or less to act on his own initiative, and as it is absolutely imperative to work in extended order you very often lose sight of the men on either flank of you and fancy you are left alone. This feeling in men untrained to this special sort of fighting has often caused a catastrophe, as it is the nature of Englishmen to close in and fight shoulder to shoulder, therefore men finding themselves, as they fancy, alone, close in, and if they do so they are easily surrounded and page 69may be shot down like sheep in a pen by invisible enemies. I therefore want to impress on you fellows that, no matter what happens in the bush, remain in extended order, and wait for the bugle to close. I expect we shall be in action in a day or so, and we have one or two tough nuts to crack. Sir Trevor Chute has already shown himself to be far more enterprising than the late general, and the hostile natives have gathered great strength through the new religion."
He remained beside me, chatting in the free-and-easy colonial way, for some time, during which I gathered much information about the country and war, and was surprised to discover how utterly ignorant people in England were of all things colonial. He also told me he had come out to the country as an infant and had served all through the war. During that march I took a great fancy to my new officer, and we started a friendship that has lasted over forty years.
Well, mile after mile, through the ankle-deep sand we toiled on, at least I did, for the rest of the men, hardened as they were to marching and accustomed by constant practice to humping their swags, made light of the road and swung along as if they had nothing on their backs at all, while I could only grit my teeth and determine I would hang on to the last, but was very glad when an opening in the manuka bushes showed us a river on the other side of which stood a large, well-ordered camp. This river was the Manawapou, which we easily forded, and, pushing on through the camp, bivouacked in a clump of manuka just in rear of the outlying picket. Oh, page 70but I was glad, very glad, when the order was given to form bivouac and I could slip off my pack and belts even for a minute, for, as soon as we had had a stretch, the latter had to be replaced and continually worn, day and night, nor were our carbines ever allowed to be out of reach of our hands.
Mr Roach picked the camp ground and pointed out the places where each four men were to make down their mi-mis (beds). This was done so that in case of an alarm a man had only to turn on his face, as each man slept with his carbine under his blanket, and be ready to repel an attack. It was wonderful to see the rapidity with which the bivouac was formed and the mi-mis made down.
"Here, Egan," quoth Hutton, "take this water-bag and fill it. Jack, you get the fern. Burke, out tomahawk and help me to clear the ground." In a moment we were all at work, Hutton and myself chopping down the tough manuka bushes and tearing up the roots so as to make a soft lying-down place.
Tim soon returned with the water and then helped Jack to bring in huge armfuls of dry fern, which they deposited on the ground we had by this time cleared, while the fire we had already lighted had burned down to red embers, in which we quickly placed our pannikins filled with water. These did not take long to boil, and when they did so, tea and sugar mixed, according to taste, were added, our haversacks opened and we piped to dinner.
"Gord," growled Jack, "I'd give some'ut for a tot this morning, but s'pose it's not to be come by."page 71
"Don't be so sure of that," I chipped in, handing him my silver flask. "Here you are, drink hearty."
He took the flask in his huge discoloured hand, it lay in his palm like a new half-crown on a fire shovel, although it held a pint, and turned it over and over as if he had never seen such a thing before, then handed it back and growled out: "Yer don't think I'm agoin' to take yer last sup, and you a ruddy new chum and a blankity blank soft swell, do yer? 'Tain't likely, is it, mates?"
But I pacified the grousing old buccaneer and persuaded him there was enough to go all round, and as Smith and Buck had completed their mi-mi next to ours and joined us, we all had a wet, and I had won a corner in the ancient pirate's rugged old heart for ever.
Directly the meal was over, which, primitive as it was, I had thoroughly enjoyed, old Jack fetched more fern and made the mi-mi down scientifically. Tim brought another bagful of water and then insisted on taking my boots off, examined my feet carefully, and made me put on a dry pair of clean socks as a preventive to blisters, then, as the bed was finished, and, if properly prepared, there is no more comfortable bed in the world than New Zealand fern, we all lay down, booted and belted, to get some sleep, for, as old Jack truthfully remarked, it was as well to rest when we got the chance, as no man in the Rangers ever knew when the watches on deck might be doubled, and the watch below be a forgotten luxury.
When I woke up it was evening, and the first thing my eye rested upon was Pierre squatting in front of the fire, on which was a big pot and a page 72bucket, while alongside of him squatted his fellow-gnome, sharpening a knife, the very sight of which was enough to make a man shudder. Now I was not surprised to see either Pierre or George, but where the deuce did the pot and bucket come from? The advent of these utensils puzzled me, so I strolled up to Pierre and wished him good-evening, at the same time remarking: "You are indeed fortunate to have found such a beautiful pot."
"But, Monsieur," he replied, "I have not found this pot. It is the same pot and bucket out of which Monsieur has already once dined."
"But, Pierre," I said, "I know you and George to be the most intrepid scouts, how therefore can you manage to carry your pot and bucket through the bush?"
"Monsieur," he replied with dignity, "a Cordon bleu should never part with his batterie de cuisine. True my hands are occupied while in the bush scouting, so I wear this magnificent pot as a helmet; my friend George likewise wears the bucket, so that, having no use for hats or caps, we have always the wherewithal to cook the dinner, and it affords much pleasure to cook dinners for gentlemen of taste such as Monsieur and Monsieur Hutton. As for the other savages, ah, bah!"
This I found on inquiry to be the truth. These men, hardened by incessant exposure, during the summer months carried no blankets, packs nor rations, neither did they wear boots nor hats, but lived on what they could find, and when they halted just threw themselves on the ground and slept like animals. This unnatural training had rendered them capable of covering immense page 73distances, and going for marvellous long intervals without food, sleep or rest. Yet they were born marauders, could and did steal everything and anything that came in their way, and as it was Pierre's chief idiosyncrasy to cook dinners our mess lived well when other messes were mumbling tough, bad rations.
That night there was no need to use our homely rations, for Pierre's helmet contained a wonderful stew, and I noticed everyone abstained from asking any questions as to how or where he had obtained the ingredients. Pierre and his pard were scouts and they had chances which they never neglected to profit by.
At sunset we fell in for orders and guard mounting, and were told that we were to march before daylight next morning to attack a very strong pah, named Otapawa, which had been scouted that afternoon by Ensign McDonnell, the Colonel's brother. The scouts had been discovered and had had to make a running fight of it, but, although heavily fired on, had escaped scathless. Colonel McDonnell, together with Colonel Butler and a strong party of the 57th Regiment, had also reached camp, and Major Von Tempsky with his Forest Rangers was also close by, so it was pretty certain we should have a warm day. As none of my party were wanted that night for duty, we over-hauled our arms carefully, lay down and slept the sleep of the just.