In the Shadow of the Bush
It was about five miles from this township of Bloomsbury, one evening towards the end of winter, that two men, carrying swags, might have been seen picking their way along one of these unformed or only partly formed roads. The mud was deep in most places, and it was only by frequent diversions to the side of the road line, and by occasionally mounting and walking along some of the prostrate trunks of trees that still lay to the right and left of the narrow cleared track, that progress could be made at all without getting knee-deep in slush.
One of the men was a strongly-built fellow of about thirty-five or forty years of age, with a face rather heavy and stolid, yet showing a good deal of conceit and self-importance. He was dressed in a thick, suit of coarse grey tweed, and wore a Scotch bonnet, or Tam O'Shanter cap. His clothes gave evidence of the time they had been in use, as much by the stains of grease and dirt that disfigured them as by the signs of hard wear.
The second man, older than his companion, was not so warmly clad, and was far from exhibiting the sturdiness of limb and strength of frame which characterised the other; but at the same time in his face might be seen some traces of refinement and intellectuality—in which that of the other was wanting—though these were sadly marred by marks of dissipation.
"Hold hard, Davie," he said, as he seated himself on a page 6log and tossed the blankets from his shoulder, "I must have a spell. This cursed track—or road, as that fool we met a couple of hours ago called it—is taking it out of me. Road be blowed! it wouldn't take much more water to make a canal of it in most places, and it's getting worse the further we go. It'll soon be dark, and we'll never be able to get to the township to-night, and the prospect of accommodation about here doesn't look inviting"; and the speaker gazed dismally round on the gloomy standing bush and log-strewn, muddy track.
"I'm no sae anxious to reach the toonship the nicht," the other replied with a broad Scotch accent. His name was David Dunlop, but he was commonly called Scotch Davie, or Davie the Sundowner, and as such was well known in the men's quarters of nearly every sheep station over most of New Zealand. At one or other of these he had been in the habit of turning up just as night was setting in. His supper, bed and breakfast were assured to him, and he went on his way again in the morning. With a most accommodating pace he would manage to reach the next station at nightfall again, were it only a mile or two from the one which he left in the morning. Ostensibly on the look out for work, it was but rarely that he condescended to accept a job when it was offered to him, being ever ready with some excuse,—"He was juist awa' to Blackridge, whaur he had promised to dae a bit o' gairdenin'," or "aff doon to Clandeboy, whaur he expected to meet a mate o' his ain, and tak' a bit o' fencin'!" or "he didna juist feel up tae" the class of work required of him. At long intervals, indeed, when his personal requirements necessitated the replenishing of his pocket, he might take employment for a few days at some light occupation. It was shrewdly hinted, however, that he was not over-particular as to the means of giving his finances a lift which chance might throw in his way; but, indeed, in his ordinary rounds, money was of little service to him. His capacious page 7stomach could take in at breakfast a supply of food sufficient, if need be, to last him till the evening; and his swag generally contained some handy stock in the eatable way that, with the help of the ever-present tea-billy which he carried, could supply a meal if necessary. A case bottle of something stronger than tea was occasionally to be found in his swag also.
"I'm no' sae anxious to reach the toonship the nicht," he said, "if I could see ony way o' winnin' to comfortable quarters till the morn. But deil tak' the hour I agreed to gang amang the cockatoos wi ye, Bill; an' I could wish mysel' back amang the squatters again. Your wee bit farmers are a measly lot, and there's no' much o' a welcome for a poor nameless laddie to be expected frae ony o' them. To be sure, ane is aye made at hame in a bushfa'ers' or roadmen's camp to a share o' what's goin'; but gie me a big station for comfort. Ye maun hae siller in your pocket if ye gang near ony o' your toonships, an' I'm thinkin', Bill, ye ha'ena ower muckle cash, nae mair than I hae mysel', to throw awa' in Bloomsbury, or whatever ye ca' the place, when we get there."
"I tell you I have a friend there," replied the other,—"or I think I have—and if he's the man I take him to be, he'll not see me hard up for a pound."
"I aye misdoot freen'ship when it's expected to put its han' in its pocket," Davie answered. "Your freen' may no' be sae pleased to see you as you'll be to see him."
"I don't say that he will," said Bill, with a laugh; and I haven't, perhaps, much greater faith in friendship than you have, Davie; but sometimes other feelings besides friendship will make a man part with the 'ready.'"
"Ah, weel," said Davie, "it was an ill day that brocht us this gate frae the coast. May his weasan' never be wet that tauld us to tak' the near way, as he ca'd it, through the bush. The langest way aboot is aften the nearest way page 8hame. But it's time we were trampin' it again, to see if we can win some place o' shelter for the nicht, be it hut or ha'. I can no see smoke risin' oot ower that bit hill ayont, that gies hopes o' a supper an' a shakedoon."
They shouldered their swags again, and after gaining the top if the rising ground pointed out by Davie, they saw, some little distance in front, signs of human habitation. A large clearing opened out on the right, and a little way back from the road-line stood a slab hut—or wharé, as it is generally called in New Zealand—of rather better appearance than ordinary, from the iron chimney of which issued the smoke that the travellers had seen. Farther back from the road were yards and a larger building evidently used as a wool-shed.
The dusk of evening was now falling, and our acquaintances turned in towards the humble abode, though larger buildings in extensive clearings could be dimly seen on the left about a mile farther down the road.
Before they reach the wharé, we will go in advance and take a closer look at it and its occupants. A building of but one apartment it was, constructed entirely of split timber, but neatly put together. The roof was of iron, as was also the chimney. The latter, deep and wide, extended nearly across the whole of one end, and formed almost a small compartment of its own. Its dimensions, however, were but in keeping with the supply of firewood outside; and it is only in the bush districts that such fireplaces are to be seen. Two stretchers, or bunks, were placed against the walls of the back and of one side, and a third again over one of these, as is the fashion on shipboard. Two small windows gave light to the apartment.
It is astonishing the quantity of goods and odds and ends that can be comfortably stowed away in a small place of this kind—provisions on shelves, saddles, perhaps, on high on the cross-ties of the roof, tools of various sorts here, books and newspapers snugly resting yonder—a hundred articles find ready lodgment, and still there is room.