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Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter XII. — Shearing

page 167

Chapter XII.
Shearing .

"The timid sheep submissive yield
The fleecy covering that proves
In stormy winter aye a shield."

Anon .

"What in the name of Fortune were you thinking of, Langton, when you let that blundering, wooden-headed Irishman take charge of the outstation?" asked Mr. Ramshorn, in no amicable mood, on his return to Waitaruna.

"It was a mistake, I confess," said Gilbert, who was busily engaged in copying a piece of music belonging to Miss Cameron, which he had undertaken to copy for Ottalie Ewart.

"You don't seem to be particularly put out about it, however," growled the manager. "You ought to have gone up yourself, and not left it to such a born fool as Mike. He'll have to take the Wallabi track to-morrow morning. I wonder how I came to keep such an idiot on the place."

"I don't think you need wonder at that," replied Gilbert, for Mike has always done his work well page 168hitherto, and perhaps I expected too much when I put him to what was such a strange job for him. I spoke to Dougal M'Lean about it before I sent him, and we both thought he would do. I shall be sorry if you dismiss Mike, for I feel the blame is greatly mine in sending him out there."

"Well, you'll have to be sorry then," replied Mr. Ramshorn, thoroughly out of temper; "for as sure as he is alive at this present moment, Mike shall be sacked the first thing to-morrow morning."

"I was greatly annoyed when the affair happened," said Gilbert, "and I am very sorry it should result so seriously for Mike."

"It will be a lesson to you to attend to your business in the future, I hope," continued Mr. Ramshorn, "instead of riding all over the country with that ne'er-do-weel chum of yours, or dancing attendance on those girls up at Pakeloa."

"If you refer to Arthur Leslie, I don't see that he has in any way merited such a term."

"Oh! well, if he does not now, he will before long. I have seen too many of his sort not to know."

"And as for my 'dancing attendance,' as you call it, on the young ladies at Pakeloa," Gilbert went on, ignoring Mr. Ramshorn's interruption, "I have only been up there once during your absence, and I went to bid good-bye to Harry Ewart, who leaves after shearing to take delivery of the new station. I page 169knew they would be finished before us, so I thought I might not have a chance again."

"You only went up to say good-bye to Ewart, did you? I suppose it is to oblige him that you are copying that music, is it? But I am off to bed. If you are ever left alone here again, I hope you will think of your work first and your pleasure after," he added, in a little more kindly tone; and bidding Gilbert good night, he retired to his room.

As Gilbert Langton sat alone copying the music, he could not but admit to himself that he was deserving of censure at the hands of Mr. Ramshorn, but he nevertheless felt somewhat aggrieved that he should have been "pitched into" in the way he had been, and he wished he could attain a position in which he might be freed from such annoyances. If, he thought, he was in such a position, he might then think of "dancing attendance" on Ottalie Ewart, whose fair face rose before his mental vision. Would he win her, he asked, if he dared ask her to become his wife? His wife! When would he be able to marry? and such a prize as Ottalie would long before that time be gained by another.

"I really think," said he to himself, "that Ramshorn is in love with Ottalie, and one would almost fancy that he was jealous of me. But surely that can't be so. If I were Ramshorn, I should at once go in and win, or learn my fate."

page 170

He pondered thus for some time, till at length the thought occurred to him that if Mr. Ramshorn was really jealous of him, he must not look upon the possibility of having Gilbert Langton for a rival as something too remote to be feared. If, then, Mr. Ramshorn thought so, why should not he? There was really nothing to prevent his winning Ottalie for his wife; he might accomplish it. And thus, as he was wont, he sat and dreamed, and in all his dreams Ottalie Ewart, or perhaps Ottalie Langton, was the brightest figure.

Next morning Mike was dismissed. Gilbert saw him as he passed the stables with his blankets rolled up into the form of a gigantic horse-collar, after the most approved fashion among swaggers.

"The top o' the morning to ye, Misther Langton," said Mike cheerfully as he passed.

"You are not going without saying good-bye, are you, Mike?" called Gilbert, adding, as Mike stopped, "I am sorry you have got sacked, and I did not think you would have got into such a scrape when I sent you to keep the boundary."

"Oh! well, it's not meesilf that's caring very much about it at all, for sure I can't make it any better, and if my laving makes the manager any happier, I'm sure he's entoirely welcome."

"What are you going to do, Mike?" asked Gilbert, thinking that probably he would be anxious page 171about finding employment; but though he had not yet been a year in the colony, Mike had learned the value of a pair of willing hands, even though directed by such a muddled head as his own.

"What am I going to do is it that you would be after asking?" replied Mike. "I'm thinking of going to the diggings at Muttontown for a bit, and I think I'll have a chance of making a rise there as well as any other man. I hear that Misther Leslie is in a good claim there."

"I wish you luck, then," said Gilbert; "but I must be getting off. I am going over to Big Creek with M'Lean to see about those sheep you got into trouble over. They are to begin shearing to-morrow, and I suppose a few days will see us hard at it too. Good-bye to you, Mike."

"Good-bye, sorr," said Mike, shouldering his "swag" as Gilbert trotted off after M'Lean, who had already started.

Gilbert was correct in his supposition that they would soon begin shearing, for on his return from Big Creek he found that they had in his absence began mustering, and that shearing was to be commenced next day.

Then began a busy time, but one which had for Gilbert the charm of novelty. He had seen sheep shorn at home, but he had never beheld such a scene as the shed at Waitaruna. The shed, a large page 172building of corrugated iron, was surrounded outside by innumerable pens, most of them crowded with sheep packed as close as they could stand. Inside, the woolshed was also filled with penned sheep, except at the end where the woolpress stood, and along each side, where space was left for the shearers. In these vacant spaces stood seven shearers on either side, most of them having already started to work. It was indeed work, hard work. Each shearer caught a sheep, dragged it struggling from the pen, turning it on its hind-quarters, and propping it against his own legs, he stooped over it, and began to clip away its wealth of wool, turning it gradually round as he removed the fleecy covering. Occasionally a little more than the wool would be cut away, and the poor sheep would bear a red scar where the skin had been wounded. If the cut was a bad one, the shearer would "sing out" for tar, which would be brought and a little applied as an ointment to the wound, while Mr. Ramshorn, who was continually passing up and down the shed and seemed to be everywhere at once, would growl at the offending shearer and make use of some vague threat of "knocking him off."

Meanwhile the "pickers up" were busy gathering up the fleeces as they fell from the bereft sheep and carrying them to the sorting table, where they page 173were stripped of the "pieces," which were thrown aside, while the best of the fleece was quickly classified, rolled together, and deposited in a kind of bin, according to its quality, whether "clothing" or "combing." No time was lost by any one; the shearers were paid by the number of sheep shorn and as they hoped to get other sheds when the Waitaruna shearing was finished, they hurried on. Besides, there was a rivalry among them as to who would have the biggest tally. There were two at least among the number who were able to put through over a hundred sheep a day each, and the others strove to come near their numbers.

Mr. Ramshorn was anxious to get the shearing finished as quickly as possible; for besides his desire to get it over and the wool sent off, all the men had to be fed, which was a considerable item, and one which would be materially added to if wet weather should come on, for then, of course, everything would be stopped in the way of work, while all hands would still require to have "the run of their teeth."

During the morning, when there was a cessation of work for a few minutes for "smoke oh," a large bucket filled with tea and a number of pannikins were brought up to the shed, and with draughts of this beverage the shearers refreshed themselves, the bucket being replenished as occasion required. page 174Gilbert was kept busy assisting to bale the wool, which was removed from the bins to the woolpress, where it was carefully packed and tightly pressed into the compact bales which might be adopted as emblematic of the wealth of the Australian colonies, as the woolsack was of that of Britain. Since the days of Abel, the first shepherd, sheep seem always to have formed a very material part of this world's wealth, and they have undoubtedly formed a most important factor in the growth of these Southern settlements. As each bale was marked with the name of the station, the class of wool, and with a running number, Gilbert kept a record of it.

When shearing had continued for a few days, rain came on one morning, much to the disgust of Mr. Ramshorn and of some of the shearers, while others seemed to be rather glad of the "spell." It cleared up again in the afternoon, but the sheep were wet, and nothing could be done for the rest of the day. Some of the shearers proposed that they should go out fishing for eels, which were reported as being plentiful in a creek not far from the station. Among the shearers was a Maori named, as Gilbert afterwards heard, Hoani Wetere Korako, but commonly called "Maori Jack," which was, strange to say, a legitimate contraction of his name. It is no uncommon thing to know a man page 175as Jack, Tom, or Bill, and when it becomes necessary to ascertain his full name accurately, one finds that he is Edward, Robert, or Alexander. Frequently, too, especially amongst miners, a nickname supplies the place of a surname, and a man will be known for years to many of his acquaintances as "Charcoal Joe," "Adelaide Jack," or "Flash Harry." This is most frequently the case when the real name is something out of the common. Nor is it confined to the male sex; for a story is told of a miner who, being about to get married, went to the registrar to give the requisite notices and arrange for the ceremony. The registrar asked politely, "And what is the lady's full name?" To which the bridegroom-elect, after thinking awhile, responded, "I'm blowed if I can tell you. What's her name, Bill?" he said, turning to his friend, who should have known, as he was to act as "bridesmaid," there being no member of the fair sex available for that office. Bill, the "bridesmaid," was, however, equally at fault, and could give no assistance to his friend, so the registrar had to wait till one of them went and ascertained from the lady herself the name she was so soon to lose.

As, however, Hoani Wetere stood for John Wesley, the name Maori Jack was a proper contraction, though this was probably more due to a lucky coin-page 176cidence than to any discrimination on the part of the originator of the name.

Gilbert was considerably interested in Maori Jack, as he was the first of the aboriginal race he had seen in the colony; for though still numerous in the North Island, throughout the South Island of New Zealand Maories are seldom seen.

Jack was a fine specimen of his race—tall, muscular, and, considering that his father had undoubtedly been familiar with the flavour of human flesh, a most intelligent man. To look at him, one could not but regret that he belonged to a doomed race, and that his people would disappear before the conquering white men. It was in talking to Jack that Gilbert learned of the proposed eeling expedition, which he decided to join.

The creek or stream which they intended visiting lay about two miles distant from the station, and was one which contributed a considerable volume of water to the river. It ran for some distance through an alluvial flat, through which it had cut a deep channel with precipitous banks from six to ten feet in height. The ground was thickly overgrown with large bushes of the native flax plant, and these on the fertile flat grew strong and luxuriantly. The stream, as it emerged from a gully in the hills, flowed rapidly, but it soon became more sluggish as it followed its sinuous course through the low land page 177to the river. Higher up it was a shallow, brawling brook, and one which seemed to be admirably adapted for trout, as it undoubtedly was, for this has been proved by the success which has attended the efforts to acclimatise trout in New Zealand, where within a few years from their first introduction they have attained to weights almost unheard of on the banks of many a famous trout stream in the old country. At the time, however, of the visit of Gilbert and his comrades, the creek contained nothing in the way of fish save some small insignificant minnows and eels, but the latter made up for all other deficiencies both as regards their number and size.

Almost as soon as Maori Jack arrived at the creek he descried an eel, and he speedily rigged up a line by cutting a flax blade, which he tore into narrow threads and knotted them together; then having procured a number of earth-worms, he fastened them to the end of his rude line by tying a number of them tightly round the middle with a piece of scraped flax fibre. The worms twisted the free portion of their bodies round one another, after the manner of their kind, so that they resembled a round ball of animated cord. Thus baited, Jack threw his line into the water a little way above the eel, and let it drop slowly down the stream towards him. Leisurely the creature took it in its mouth, where it held the "bob" of worms a while, as though it were page 178doubtful what to do with it. "Pull away, Jack," said several of the men, but John Wesley only shook his head and watched the bait. Seemingly satisfied that all was right, the eel swallowed the living ball; then Jack pulled away with a will, and soon brought the eel struggling and writhing to land. Gilbert sprang upon it, and catching it, as one would do a fish, by the neck, as though to remove the "bob" from its grasp, he was surprised by being himself grasped by the arm by the slimy body of the eel, which quickly encircled its snake-like folds around his arm so tightly, that he was glad to allow it to be pulled off by the others. Jack took advantage of the situation to haul the "bob" from the innermost recesses of the eel's body, from which it was withdrawn little the worse, and ready to be used again to beguile some luckless eel from his native element.

One or two of the party had brought hooks and lines, but they found them less serviceable than the "bob," as it required anatomy to extract the hooks. The only disadvantage attending the former method was that those who were inexperienced in its use were rather apt to pull up the line before the bait was properly swallowed, in which case they were almost sure not to land their eel. But notwithstanding this, the "take" was a large one, and it had long been dark when they desisted fishing. The eels caught were mostly from two to four feet long; so page 179that, between the exertion of fishing for them and the carrying them home, all hands were pretty well tired out by the time they reached the station.

Fortunately the weather remained fine after this, and there was no other interruption to the shearing at Waitaruna.