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Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter IX. — Muttontown

page 127

Chapter IX.
Muttontown .

"Gold, gold, gold, gold,
Bright and yellow and hard and cold,
Heavy to get and light to hold."

Hood .

Towards evening, on the Monday succeeding the events recorded in the close of the last chapter, Gilbert and Mr. Ramshorn were quietly jogging along the bridle-track which led to the thriving little diggings township rejoicing in the high-sounding title of Muttontown, which, although it was not in the direct route from Pakeloa to Waitaruna, lay about equidistant from both places, and not so far out of the direct line as to add very materially to the journey in making it a place of call.

Mr. Ramshorn and Gilbert had been amusing themselves by talking about the odd coincidence that the names possessed by many of the station owners and managers in the neighbourhood were in some way connected with sheep, and that even the diggings shared the same peculiarity. "For," said Mr. Ramshorn, "besides the name of the township, page 128we are now entering 'Sheephead Gully,' and the stream which runs close by the town is called the 'Eweburn Creek.'

"Let us push on," he continued, "for I never like riding near those diggings after dark, there are so many holes about, and the tracks sometimes wind among them in the most extraordinary manner. There's one now close by the path."

If the access to Muttontown by any other than the main road was not free from danger, there was nothing in the appearance of the place or its surroundings to repay one for visiting it.

The township was situated in the middle of a wide gully, into which several smaller ones debouched just above the town. The hills dividing these from one another were low, rounded, and grassy; and judging from the white heaps with which they were studded, were formed of a whitish clay mixed with gravel. These heaps, Gilbert learned, marked the shafts which had in the days of "the rush" been sunk all over the spurs and gullies in order to obtain the gold, but which were now mostly deserted, as the miners had almost universally taken to the plan of sluicing or washing away the hills bodily. The white heaps of "headings" marked the existence of holes clearly enough on the spurs, but in the bottoms of the gullies, where the vegetation was a little ranker, and the heaps of "headings" page 129very much smaller, any one riding off the track would require, even in daylight, to keep a very sharp look-out to avoid falling into some of them. Close by the township, and also a little further down the gully, were several high white cliffs formed by the mining operations, while the whole of the valley was covered with gravel, sludge, and mud washed down from the various workings, amid which there flowed in many and devious courses a stream of muddy water, or rather liquid mud. The township itself comprised some thirty or forty buildings of corrugated iron, with here and there a frame tent, while the suburbs consisted of diggers' tents by twos and threes in sheltered nooks, most of them being surrounded by a wall built of sods or turf, and protected by a weather-stained and patched "fly." Most of the tents had also a small pole of manŭka, some seven or eight feet high, rising like a flagstaff from some part of the premises; but, instead of a flag, there usually depended some portion of a defunct sheep.

"What in the world do they hoist their mutton aloft for?" said Gilbert; "no wonder that the place is called Muttontown."

"I don't think that that has anything to do with the name," replied Mr. Ramshorn; "those are the diggers' larders. They hoist their meat like that to keep it from the blowflies, which, strange to say, never page 130seem to touch anything which is raised a few feet from the ground."

They rode a little way up the unmade street, and halted at the door of a large corrugated iron building, with a weather-board front. The signboard informed the public in general and travellers in particular that the edifice was the "All Nations Hotel," and that there was to be obtained "good stabling."

"This is the best place to stop," said Mr. Ramshorn, as they dismounted.

Gilbert looked along the street and saw that nearly every other building was a hotel, and that those which were not were mostly stores; but whether hotels or stores, all rejoiced in large signboards, if they could be so called, seeing many of them were formed of strong calico or canvas stretched on wooden frames. Whatever the material, they mostly bore inscriptions differing considerably from any that Gilbert had seen before. There was a store styled, "The Biggest Wonder of the World," "The Sluicer's Arms Hotel," "The Belfast Store," "The Who'd ha' Thought it Hotel," and the "Help me through the World Boarding House and Bowling Alley," which last mentioned was a hotel in all save the name and the possession of a licence; but this was not a great desideratum in those days, for liquor was openly sold in almost every house in the township, except the banks, and the blacksmith's and page 131carpenter's shops. Most of the stores had no windows in front, but only large doors in the gable ends, which stood towards the street, and these served the double purpose of admitting the light and the customers.

The view from the street where they stood was contracted and uninteresting. Looking down the gully, the street seemed to end in a bank of white tailings washed down from the hill, while a bend in the gulley shut out any further prospect. In the other direction a low hill rose, on which stood the warden's house, a small cottage of weather boards, the police quarters, comprising three or four frame tents and the lock-up. The latter consisted of two very small rooms or cells, strongly built of wood. The whole of these erections were collectively styled "the camp." Above the hill on which they stood there rose a higher hill, along whose face there ran a couple of water-races; and, higher still, there rose a wild and stony range, the highest peak of which was known by the elegant name of "Mount Buster."

Giving up their horses to a drunken-looking loafer, who seemingly acted as groom and hanger-on at the "All Nations," they entered the "best hotel in the place."

There was no hall or passage of any description, but they stepped from the street into the bar, which was a spacious room occupying the full width of the page 132building. In this there were three or four men, all seemingly the worse for liquor, as was the landlord himself, who was, from behind the bar, carrying on an animated discussion with his customers in a loud voice. Gilbert was rather taken back when one of the latter slapped him on the shoulder, and turning round, he saw a great brawny, bearded fellow, arrayed in a woollen shirt, trousers stained with clay, long waterproof boots reaching above the knee, and with a bright crimson silk sash wound round his waist.

"Come and have a drink, mate," said the digger, and turning to the landlord said, "I'll shout for all hands, old man. Name your liquors, boys; mine's gin and raspberry."

Gilbert, thinking it best to be civil, thanked the man, but declined his offer.

"You must not take a shingle off," said the landlord, addressing him; "that won't do."

"No, no," said one of the others, "you must have a drink for the good of the house. Have something soft," he added, seeing Gilbert was apparently still reluctant, and looking as if meditating an escape, though in reality he was looking for Mr. Ramshorn, who had gone off to look after the horses. Seeing that the quickest way out of the difficulty would be to have something to drink, Gilbert said he would take a glass of beer; but the miner who was "shouting" did not seem to approve of this, for he said, page 133"Never mind what Bill there says, but have something hard." This was rather unintelligible to Gilbert; but guessing it referred to some stronger drink than beer, said, "No, thank you; I have been riding, and prefer something soft."

"All right, mate. Here's luck, boys," said his host, tossing off his "gin and raspberry."

Leaving the miners at their potations, Gilbert found his way round the end of the bar into the dining-room, a large long room lighted from the roof, with a partition of green baize running along each side. Half a dozen doors, of the same material in each partition, led to the bedrooms of the establishment, while another door in the end of the room opened into the kitchen. As Gilbert entered, a man, who had been sitting by the table rose and said, "Hullo! Gilbert, how are you?"

"Why, Arthur, who would have expected to see you here?" answered Gilbert.

"Well, I think you might have expected to see me here," replied Arthur Leslie; "for don't you remember I spoke of leaving Big Creek and coming here? But I have not left Big Creek yet. I only came here on Friday afternoon by the coach to get some things from the store, and I start back again to-morrow morning. I never travelled by coach before, and I don't care if I never do again," continued Arthur, "at least if all the roads are as rough page 134and jolty as that by which I came here. I was inside, too, for the box-seat was full. I was awfully amused by the only other inside passenger. She was a stout, overdressed, young woman, with a baby and a bonnet-box, to both of which she held as if for her life. As we were jolting along over a very rough bit of road, I was afraid that the whole three, woman, bonnet-box, and baby, would be precipitated on the top of me if she did not hold on to the coach; so, more out of regard to my own safety than her comfort, I asked if I could hold the box for her. But, with a look of horror at my presumption, she answered, 'No, no! it's a bonnet. You may hold the baby though;' a privilege which I need hardly say I declined to take advantage of. I was nearly asleep when you came in," he continued, "and intended going straight to bed after tea, but now I shall try and keep my eyes open, and have a yarn with you."

"You must have been sleepy indeed, if you could even doze with such a row going on as there is in the bar."

"Well, I am sleepy, and no wonder," replied Arthur; "and as for the noise, I am getting used to that. These fellows have been at it without stopping since ever I came here. After I had gone to bed on Friday night some of these men began gambling in this room, and, of course, I could hear every word and every noise through the baize wall of the page 135bedroom as distinctly as if I had been in the room itself. They kept at it all night, all Saturday, only adjourning to the bar during the day, but returning here again at night; and they kept at it all Saturday night, and till about two o'clock on Sunday afternoon, when they stopped playing. I could hear that two of them had been winners, having netted about £40 or £50 each, and these two commenced shouting champagne. After a while they adjourned to another house, and in the course of the afternoon they went to nearly every public in town, shouting champagne for all hands. Some of the crowd came back here, and they kept it up till pretty late on Sunday night. I got a sleep that night, but having lost two nights' rest, I have some arrears to bring up. Before breakfast on Monday morning some two or three began drinking again, and you saw as you came in how they were getting on."

"What a pleasant place to live in this must be!" said Gilbert. "I notice," he continued, "that you are picking up a good many of the colonial phrases, Arthur."

"Oh! well, you must do at Rome as Rome does, you know and there is no use letting every one know you are a new chum."

Mr. Ramshorn came in from the stables, and was introduced to Arthur, and shortly afterwards they all had tea together. Fortunately none of the miners page 136felt inclined to partake of tea, and the trio were left to enjoy their repast in peace, except for the noises which came from the bacchanalians in the bar.

After tea, as they sat chatting and smoking, a few of the inhabitants dropped in, having, no doubt, seen the strangers arrive, and being very desirous of learning all about them. The conversation, which was aided in its flow by periodical supplies of liquids, turned upon what was called the time of the rush.

"Ah! that was the time for making money," said the butcher. "I did uncommon well in those days, but I've since dropped what I made then."

"Well," said the blacksmith, "you should have looked after it better when you had it. I did, and though I don't wear a paper collar, I could buy up a good many who do."

"Come, now, Tom, what's the use of blowing? We all know very well that you are a hard 'un. Man alive! your own anvil's nothing to you."

"A deal's a deal," replied the man of iron. "I can make a bargain as well as most men, and he'll have to get up very early in the morning who wants to get to the wind'ard of me; but I'm none harder than other folk, except may be some flash card like you, Jack, who likes to fly round a bit when they've got a few notes."

"Oh! well, I'm not for saying a man should not page 137do what he likes with his own, but I do say you are a hard man to deal with. Do you mind that unfort'nate waggoner and his sheet iron? You had him to rights. Eh, Tom? But let's have another drink, old man."

Whether it was the recollection of his having "had" the waggoner, or Jack's "shout" that mollified Tom the blacksmith was unknown, but when he had been supplied with a "nobbler" of port wine and brandy, which was his "particular weakness," he smiled to himself, and turning to the strangers said, "Yes, I got that iron pretty cheap, but that was by a fluke, you may say. It was this way it happened. I was out of iron, and was expecting some up from Dunedin, so I took a walk down to where the waggons camped, to see if the waggoner with the iron had got in the night before. I found out that he hadn't got in yet, but when I was looking round I saw a lot of sheet iron, just the very thing for hoppers for cradles, in one of the waggons camped there. I spoke to the drayman, and asked him what he was going to do with it. He said he did not know, but he had been told in Dunedin that if he put some sheet iron in the bottom of his waggon he would get a large profit on it at Muttontown; but says he, 'I don't know what they want it for.' Thinks I to myself, 'Here's a chance for me;' so says I to him, 'Well, I don't know what they told page 138you to bring that from Dunedin for. It will be a bad job if you have to cart it back again.' 'Oh! no fear; I'll leave it sooner than do that.' 'What did you give for it?' I asked him. He told me the price, which was low enough; but I says to him, 'There's not many here will buy it from you.' 'Seemingly not.' says he, 'for I tried one or two last night, but they would not have it.' So after a bit of talk I offered to give him what he had given for it in town, so that he would only lose the cartage on it, and he was soft enough to make it a bargain. The cartage would have been worth about fifty pounds to him, and he might have made a big profit on the iron besides. He thought he had got out of a bad bargain pretty well, and was pleased, and so was I; so it was all right. I got him to bring it up to the forge, and it was not long before I had a sheet cut up into four hopper plates, which I sold straight away for a pound a piece. The waggoner, who was still waiting about, opened his eyes in astonishment and says, 'Well, you have had me to rights this time.'"

"And there's no doubt," said Jack, "but what you did have him. Now," said he, turning to the others, "did I not tell you Tom was a hard 'un?"

Tom the blacksmith, having been started, was apparently quite ready to continue his stories of his page 139money-making in the first of the rush at Muttontown and other diggings.

"After I had been here for some little time there was a rush broke out over at Blackman's, and some of the diggers began leaving here for there. At first they brought their spare picks and tools for me to buy, for the road from this over to Blackman's was a very rough one. I began buying them at first, but after a day or two, when the rush got bigger, I was afraid that I would have to go to Blackman's too, and I refused to buy them at any price. Most of the men, when they found I would not buy, would throw their picks down and say if I would not buy them I could take them or let them rip as I pleased. The rush was an out-and-out duffer, and the last of them was hardly away before they began dropping back again to their old claims about here. I did a big trade for some time in secondhand picks, and I sold them their old ones back again at rattling good prices. Ah! those were the days for making money, as Jack says."

"This place is greatly changed since then," said Jack. "You could hardly get along the street for the crowd, and if you wanted a drink, you had to fight your way into the bar. There was a rare old mob about here then, I can tell you."

"Well, Langton," said Mr. Ramshorn, "as we have page 140to make an early start in the morning, I think we had better go to roost. I'm off, at any rate, whatever you may do."

"I'll go too," said Gilbert; "and you, Arthur, must be quite ready for bed. Good night, old fellow, and come over to Waitaruna and look me up some time."

That night both Mr. Ramshorn and Gilbert Langton dreamed pleasant dreams, for they both dreamt of Ottalie Ewart.