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Station Amusements

Chapter IX. Another Shepherd’s Hut

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Chapter IX. Another Shepherd’s Hut.

To get to Ned’s hut—which was not nearly so trim or comfortable as Salter’s, and stood out in the midst of a vast plain covered with waving yellow tussocks,—we had to cross a low range of hills, and pick our way through nearly a mile of swampy ground on the other side. The sure-footed horses zig-zagged their way up the steep hill-side with astonishing ease, availing themselves here and there of a sheep track, for sheep are the best engineers in the world, and always hit off the safest and easiest line of country. I did not feel nervous going up the hill, although we must have appeared, had there been any one to look at us, more like flies on a wall than a couple of people on horse back, but when we came to the ridge and looked down on the descent beneath us, my heart fairly gave way.

Not a blade of grass, or a leaf of a shrub, was to be page 140 seen on all the steep slope, or rather precipice, for there was very little slope about it; nothing but grey loose shingle, which the first hoof-fall of the leading horse invariably sent slipping and sliding, in a perfect avalanche of rubble, down into the soft bright green morass beneath. Of all the bad “tracks” I encountered in my primitive rides, I really believe I suffered more real terror and anguish on that particular hill-side than on any other. My companion’s conduct too, used to be heartless in the extreme. He let the reins fall loosely on his horse’s neck, merely holding their extreme ends, settled himself comfortably in his saddle, leaning well back, and turning round laughingly to me, observed, “Aren’t you coming?” “Oh, not there,” I cried in true melo-dramatic tones of horror; but it was all in vain, F—— merely remarked “You have nothing to do but fancy you are sitting in an arm-chair at home, you are quite as safe.” “What nonsense,” I gasped. “I only wish I was at home: never, never will I come out riding again.” All this time the leading horse was slowly and carefully edging himself down hill a few steps to the right, then a few to the left, just as he thought best, displacing tons of loose stone and even small rocks at every movement. Helen, nothing daunted, was eager to follow, and although she quivered with excitement at the noise, page 141 echoed back from the opposite hills, lost no time in preparing to descend. Her first movement sent such showers of rubble down upon F—— and his horse, that I really thought the latter would have been knocked off his legs. “If you could keep a little more to the right, so as to send the stones clear of me, I should be very grateful,” shouted F——, who was actually near the bottom of the hill already, so sharp had been the angles of his horse’s descent. I felt afraid of attempting to guide Helen, lest the least check should send us both head over heels into the quagmire below, and yet it seemed dreadful to cause the death of one’s husband by rolling down cart loads of stones upon him. It could not have been more than five minutes before Helen and I stood side by side with Leo, on the only bit of firm ground at the edge of the morass. I believe I was as white as my pocket handkerchief; and if fright could turn a person’s hair grey, I had been sufficiently alarmed to make myself eligible for any quantity of walnut pomade.

Fortunately the summer had proved rather a dry one, and the swamp was not so wet as it would have been after a heavy rain-fall. The horses stepped carefully from flax bushes to “nigger heads” (as the very old blackened grass stumps are called), resting hardly a moment anywhere, and avoiding all the most page 142 seductive looking spots. I thought my companion must have gone suddenly mad, when, a hawk rising up almost from beneath our horses’ feet, he flung himself off his saddle and cried out, “A late hawk’s nest, I declare!” And so it proved, for a little searching in a sheltered and tolerably dry spot revealed a couple of eggs, precisely like hens’ eggs, until broken, when their delicate pale green inner membrane betrayed their dangerous origin. It is chiefly owing to this practice of laying in swamps that the various kinds of hawk increase and thrive as they do, for if it were possible to get at them, the shepherds would soon exterminate the sworn foe of their chickens and pigeons. They are also the great drawback to the introduction of pheasants and partridges, for the young birds have not a chance in the open against even a sparrow-hawk.

Although it is a digression, I must tell you here how, one beautiful early winter’s day, I was standing in the verandah at my own home, when one of our pigeons, chased by a hawk, flew right into my face and its pursuer was so close and so heated by the chase, that it flung itself also with great violence against my head, with a scream of rage and triumph, hurting me a good deal as it dug its cruel, armed heel into my cheek. The pigeon had fluttered, stunned page 143 and exhausted to the ground, and, quick as lightning I stooped to pick it up; so great had been the impetus of the hawk’s final charge that he had never perceived his victim had escaped him. The cunning of these birds must be seen to be believed. I have often watched a wary old hawk perched most impudently on the stock-yard rails, waiting until a rash chicken or duckling should, in spite of its mother’s warning clucks of terror, insist on coming out from under her sheltering wings. If I took an umbrella, or a croquet mallet, or a walking stick, and went out, the bird would remain quite unmoved, even if I held my weapon pointed gun-wise towards him. But let anyone take a real gun and hold it ever so well hidden behind their back, and emerge ever so cautiously from the shelter of the shrubs, my fine gentleman was off directly, mounting out of sight with a few strokes of his powerful wings, and uttering a shriek of derision as he departed. Nothing is so rare as a successful shot at a hawk.

We consoled ourselves however on this occasion, by reflecting. that we had annihilated two young hawks before they had commenced their lives of rapine and robbery, and rode on our way rejoicing, to find Ned Palmer sitting outside his but door on a log of drift wood, making, candles. In the more primitive page 144 days of the settlement, the early settlers must have been as badly off for light, during the long dark winter evenings, as are even now the poorer inhabitants of Greenland or of Iceland, for their sole substitute for candles consisted of a pannikin half filled with melted tallow, in which a piece of cork and an apology for a wick floated. But by my time all this had long been past and over, and even a back-country shepherd had a nice tin mould in which he could make a dozen candles of the purest tallow at a time.

Ned was just running a slender piece of wood through the loops of his twisted cotton wicks, so as to keep them above the rim of the mould, and the strong odour of melted mutton fat was tainting the lovely fresh air. But New Zealand run-holders have often to put up with queer smells as well as sights and sounds, therefore we only complimented Ned on being provident enough to make a good stock of candles before-hand, for home consumption, during the coming dark days. After we had dismounted and hobbled our horses with the stirrup leathers, so that they could move about and nibble the sweet blue grass growing under each sheltering tussock, I sat down on a large stone near, and began to tell Ned how often I had watched the negroes in Jamaica making candles after a similar fashion, only they use the wax from the page 145 wild bee nests instead of tallow, which was a rare and scarce thing in that part of the world. I described to him the thick orange-coloured wax candles which used to be the delight of my childhood, giving out a peculiar perfuming odour after they had been burning for an hour or two,—an odour made up of honey and the scent of heavy tropic flowers.

Ned listened to my little story with much politeness, and then, feeling it incumbent on him to contribute to the conversation, remarked, “I never makes candles ma’am without I thinks of frost-bites.”

“How is that, Palmer?” I asked, laughingly. “What in the world have they to do with each other?”

“Well, ma’am, you see it was just in this way. It was afore I come here, which is quite a lively, sociable place compared to Dodson’s back country out-station, at the foot o’ those there ranges beyond. I give you my word, ma’am, it used always to make me feel as if I was dead, and living in a lonely eternity. Them clear, bright-blue glassers (glaciers, he meant, I presume) was awful lonesome, and as for a human being they never come a-nigh the place. Well as I was saying, ma’am, one day I finds I had run out o’ candles, and as the long dark evenings (for it was the height o’ winter) was bad enough, even with a dip page 146 burning, to show me old Spot’s face for company, I set to work, hot haste, to make some more. It was bitter, biting cold, you bet, ma’am; and I was hard at work—just after I had had my bit o’ breakfast, before I went out for to look round my boundary—melting and making my dips, so that they might be fine and hard for night. I ought praps to mention that Spot used to get so close to the fire-place, that as often as not, I dropped a mossel of the hot grease on the dog; and if it touched a thin place in his coat, he would jump up howling. Well, ma’am, I was pouring a pannikin full o’ biling tallow into the mould, when poor old Spot he gives a sudden howl and yell, and runs to the door. I paid no attention to him at the time, for I was so busy; but he went on leaping up and howling as if he had gone mad. As soon as I could put down the pannikin out o’ my hand, I went to the door meaning to open it and,—sorry am I to say it,—kick the poor beast out for making such a row about a drop o’ hot grease. But the dog turned his face round on me, and gave me a look as much as to say, “Make haste, do; there’s a good chap: I ought to be outside there.” And what with the sense shinin’ in his eyes, and a curious kind o’ sound outside, I takes down the bar (for the door wouldn’t stay shut otherwise), and looks out. Never until my dyin’ day, and not even then, I expect, shall I for- page 147 get what the dog and I saw lying on the ground, which was all white and hard with frost, the sun not having got over the East range yet. The dog he had more sense and a deal more pluck than I had, for he knows there aint a moment to be lost; and he runs up to the flat, tumbled-down heap o’ clothes, gets on its back (for no face could I see), so as to be doing something, and not losing time, and begins licking. Not very far off there was a lean horse standing, but he didn’t seem to like to come through the slip-rail o’ the paddock fence.”

In coorse I couldn’t stand gaping there all day, so I went and stooped down to the man, who was lying flat on his face, with his arms straight out. He wasn’t sensibleless (Palmer’s favourite word for senseless), for he opened his eyes, and said, “For God’s sake, mate, take me in.” “So I will, mate,” I makes reply “and welcome you are. Can you get on your legs, think you?” With that he groans awful, and says, “My legs is friz.” Well, I looks at his legs, and sees he was dressed in what had been good moleskins, and high jack riding-boots, coming up to his knees; but sure enough they was as hard as a board, and actially, if you’ll believe me, ma’am, there was a rim o’ solid hice round the tops of his boots. As for standing, he couldn’t do it: his legs was no more use to him than page 148 they was to me, and he was a tall, high fellow besides. Cold as it was, I felt hot enough by the time I had lugged that poor man inside my place, and got him up on my bunk. He could speak, though his voice was weak as weak could be, and he helped me as well as he could by catching hold with his arms, but his legs was stone dead. I had to get the tommy (anglice-tomahawk), and chop his boots off, and that’s the gospel truth, ma’am. I broke my knife, first try, and the axe was too big. He told me, poor fellow, that two days before, as he was returning from prospecting up towards the back ranges, his horse got away, and he couldn’t catch him. No: he tried with all his might and main, for in his swag, which was strapped to the D’s of his saddle, was not only his blanket, but his baccy, and tea, and damper, and a glass o’ grog. The curious thing, too, was that the horse didn’t bolt right away, as they generally do: he jest walked a-head, knowing his master was bound to follow wherever he led, for in coorse he had hopes to catch him every moment. That ere brute, he never laid down nor rested,—jest kep slowly moving on, as if he was a Lunnon street-boy, with a bobby at his heels. Through creeks and rivers and swamps he led that poor fellow. His boots got chuck full o’ cold water, and when the sun went down it friz into solid page 149 hice; and that misfortnit man he felt his legs—which was his life, you see, ma’am—gradially dyin’ under him. Yet he was a well-plucked one, if ever there was such a party on this airth. He told me he had took five mortial hours to come the last mile, the horse walkin’ slowly afore him, and guiding him like. And how do you think he did it, with two pillars of hice for legs? Why he lifted up just one leg and then the other with both his hands, and put them afore him, and took his steps that way.

Here honest Ned, his eyes glistening, and his ugly little face glowing with emotion through its coating of sunburn, paused, as if he did not like to go on.

I was more touched and interested than I could avoid. showing, and cried, “Oh, do tell me, Palmer, what became of the poor fellow! Did he die?”

Ned cleared his throat, and moved so as to get between me and the light from the door, as he said huskily, “He came very nigh to it, ma’am. I never did set eyes on such a decent patient chap as that man was. I did the very wust thing I could a’ done, the town doctors told me, for I brought him into the hut, instead o’ keeping him outdoors and rubbing his poor black legs with snow. ’Stead o’ that, I wrapped him up warm in my own blankets, after I had chipped his boots and the hice off of ’em, and I made up a page 150 roarin’ fire. Good Lord, how the poor fellow groaned when he begun to get warm! I gave him a pannikin full o’ hot tea, with a drop o’ grog in it, and that seemed to make him awful bad. At last he said, with the sweat from sheer agony pouring down his face, ‘Look here, matey: couldn’t you hump me out in the snow again? for it aint nigh so bad to bear it cold as it is to bear it hot.’ Not a bad word did he say, ma’am, and he tried not to give in more nor he could help; but he was clean druv wild with the hanguish in his legs.”

“Presently I remembers, quite sudden like, that a bush doctor, name of Tomkins, was likely to be round by Simmons, cos’ o’ his missus. So I got on my ’oss in a minnit, and I rides off and fetches him, for sure enough he was there; and though Simmons’ missis wasn’t to say over her troubles, she spoke up from behind the curtain of red blanket she had put up in her tidy little hut, and bade old Tomkins go with me. May God bless her and hers for that same, say I! Well, ma’am, when Tomkins come back with me and saw the poor fellow (he was fair shoutin’ with the pain in his legs by then), he said nothin’ could be done. ‘They’ll mortify by morrow mornin’,’ says he, ‘and then he’ll die easy.’ So with that he goes back with the first light next day, to Simmons. Sure enough, page 151 the poor fellow did get a bit easier next day, and I felt clear mad to think he was goin’ to die before my very eyes. “Not if I can help it!” I cries, quite savage like. But he only smiled a patient smile, and said, ‘God’s will be done, mate. He knows best, and I aint in any pain to speak of, now.’

“By and bye I hears a rumbling and a creaking, and cracking of whips; and when I looks out, what do I see but the bullock-dray from Simmons’ coming up the flat. It was the only thing on wheels within forty mile, and Simmons had brought it his own self to see if we couldn’t manage to get the poor fellow down to the nighest town. I won’t make my yarn no longer than I can help, ma’am, so I’ll only mention that we made a lot o’ the strongest mutton broth you ever tasted; we slung a hammock of red blankets in the dray, and we got the poor fellow down by evening to a gentleman’s station. There they made us kindly welcome, did all they could for him, and transhipped the hammock into a pair-horse dray, which went quicker and was easier. We got on as fast as we could every step of the way, and by midnight that poor fellow was tucked into a clean bed in the hospital at Christchurch, with both his legs neatly cut off just above the knee, for there wasn’t a minute to lose.

I was almost afraid to inquire how the sufferer fared, page 152 for Ned’s eyes were fairly swimming with unshed tears; but he smiled brightly, and said, “The ladies and gentlemen in the town, they set up a subscribetion, and bought the poor chap a first-rate pair o’ wooden legs, and he could even manage to ride about after a bit; and instead o’ wandering about looking for country, or gold, or what not, he settled down as a carrier, and throve and did well. And I was thinking, ma’am, as how I’d like to return thanks for that poor fellow’s wonderful recovery, for I’ve never had a chance of going to Church since, and its nigh upon two years ago that it happened.

“So you shall, Ned: so you shall!” we said with one voice. And so at our first Church gathering at our dear little antipodean home, F——, who acted as our minister, paused in the beautiful Thanksgiving Service, after he had read solemnly and slowly the simple words, “Especially for Thy late mercies vouchsafed to —,” and Ned Palmer chimed in with an “Amen,”—misplaced, indeed, but none the less hearty, and delightful to hear.