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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter III

page 9

Chapter III.

Outside this particular wharé to which Davie and his companion were drawing nigh, a young fellow of about six-and-twenty, tall and muscular, with brown hair and beard, and with an honest, manly look in his face and eyes, was chopping up a tawa log into convenient-sized firewood. He used the axe with that easy swing and accurate aim which only long practice with it can give.

"How are the spuds, Maurice?' he called out to someone who was inside the wharé.

"The potato is cooked, as the old Maori said," was the answer in a cheerful voice. "The billy is on the point of boiling, the table is laid, and the cold meat is—is to the fore again;" and the owner of the voice stepped outside the door. He was of medium height, a year or two older than the other, and somewhat darker, with a bright and fearless eye that generally had a humorous twinkle in it. Broad-shouldered he was also, and powerful in arm and limb.

This was Maurice M'Keown, employed by the other, who owned the property, to assist him in the work of the farm, in attending to the stock, in logging up and clearing, in fencing, and also on one or two occasions in doing a little bushfalling, though the latter work was usually let by contract, one of which was at this particular time being carried out by a man, known as Flash Harry, and his mates.

Brought up on a small farm in Ulster, M'Keown had page 10emigrated to the Colony some years previously, and, at first in the South Island and afterwards in the Bush districts of the North, had sought for and found employment where-ever it was most readily to be obtained. He had been with his present employer for nearly two years. The relations between the two partook less of the character of master and servant than are usually found between those similarly situated. They were, indeed, in some respects, more like those of mates, for Maurice seemed to take as keen an interest in all that was done, or to be done, on the farm as the employer himself did. He was ever forward, it is true, in taking the heaviest end of a log if a fencing line was being cleared, and, if they engaged in the work of bush-falling, when a particularly big or tough rimu or rata had to come down, it was generally Maurice who tackled it.

Frank Ashwin, to whom the property belonged, was a New Zealander born, the son of one of the early settlers. His father, who owned a large farm, named Harefield, in the open country, some fifty miles nearer the coast, had a few years previously started him in life on his own account here in the bush, by purchasing this property of about five hundred acres, and since then Frank had been engaged in bringing it into pasture with as little delay as possible. Though many improvements had been effected, the slab wharé that had been up on the first clearing made still remained the only place of residence. A more roomy and pretentious structure had often been spoken of, but the erection of it had still been deferred.

"Down, Scot! down, Rove!—what the dickens!—Hallo! visitors, by Jove!" exclaimed Ashwin, as our friends from the road approached, having roused the keen watchfulness of the sheep dogs.

"And may I never see Sunday," said M'Keown, as the men drew nearer, "if one of them isn't Davie Dunlop the Sundowner. I saw him once or twice at Langridge, in the page 11other Island, and would know the cut of his jib again among a thousand. He has crossed the Straits, then. Times must be bad among the stations when Davie has come so far out of his beat. We'll have them for the night."

The travellers now came up, and were sniffed at suspiciously by the dogs, who did not seem at all prepossessed in their favour. Davie was spokesman, and averred that they were dead-beat, and asked for a bit of something to eat and permission to make their bed somewhere for the night. "Fower days we ha'e been trampin' it," he said, "but this last ane caps them a'; it's been oot o' ane mud-hole into anither the day lang, when we werena on the logs. Gi'e me the open lands for gettin' aboot in. But ye'll ha'e a bonnie country here in time when ye get the roads made fit for Christian folk, to traivel on; an' ye'll no want firin' for a bit, that's ane comfort."

Their request was readily granted by Ashwin.

"The accommodation is not of the best, as you may see," he said. "There is a spare bunk in the wharé for one of you, and the other can doss down somewhere; there is plenty of room in the shed, but it's a bit draughty, I am afraid, these cold nights."

They were now invited to join in the meal already prepared, and proved themselves good trenchermen. This was the case especially with Davie, before whose appetite huge quantities of cold meat, potatoes and bread disappeared, washed down with pints of hot tea. The remains of some cold plum-pudding, left over from the Sunday's dinner, also followed He made such good use of time that he thought some apology might be needed, and said:

"There's naethiu' gies a man an appetite like trampin' it alang sic tracks as ye hae in these pairts; an' it's an ower lang fast since the morn."

"If you could only work as well with your hands as you do with your teeth, Davie, you would be the right man for the page 12bush country," M'Keown said, rather rudely in substance but in a joking tone; "and you needn't go short of a job about here, if it's hard work you want. Flash Harry, who has a contract from Mr. Ashwin here, was saying only this morning that he would take on a couple of wages men at bushfalling—so there's a job at hand if you're wanting one."

Davie replied, after he had given a short chuckling laugh at M'Keown's first remark, that work was what he was on the look out for, but that he had first to go as far as the township with his mate who was expecting to meet a friend there; and he "misdooted if this hushfa'in' wark is a'thegither in my line—no' that I'm afeard o' hard graft, if it comes to that."

Later in the evening, as they smoked their pipes in front of the roaring fire (Davie claimed to be just out of tobacco, and had to ask for a bit), the man whom Davie called Bill—Westall was his other name—asked:

"What sort of a township is this Bloomsbury, and how far are we from it?"

"About four miles," replied Ashwin. "It's a rising place, still going ahead fast; and when we get the railway to it 'things will boom,' properly, I expect."

"Do you know anyone of the name of Wilmot who lives there—a land agent, or something of the sort?" Westall enquired.

"Wilmot?—Oh, yes," Ashwin replied. "He's quite the leading man of the place—owns a lot of the township; is part proprietor of the newspaper, people say, and of heaven knows what besides. I hear he is going to stand for the House at the next election, and is likely to get in, too."

Westall appeared satisfied, and said no more on the subject.

"I hae been thinkin' o' stannin' for Parliament mysel' for some consteetuency," chimed in Davie, after a pause. "I hae seen as much o' New Zealand as maist men,—if that's ony recommendation; and I hae gaun gye deep into politics—I'm page 13no' afeard but I could hand my ain in the Parliament Hoose wi' ony o' them."

"As a special representative of all sundowners and followers of the Wallaby Track, I suppose," said M'Keown.

"As a speecial representative o' the Warkin' Man, sir. wha has been kep' under fut ower lang," replied Davie, warmly.

"Yes," said Ashwin, "and you would be as well qualified to specially represent him as are some members already in the House, who claim to make that their particular business."

"Nae doot," replied Davie, who felt himself flattered by the remark of the last speaker; while between him and Maurice there was evidently no love lost. The latter never missed an opportunity of having a shot at him in a good-humoured way, and this Davie was inclined to resent.

Once, later in the evening, when he appeared about to lose his temper at some thrust of M'Keown's, Ashwin, in order to change the subject, said:

"Never mind him, Davie, but give us a song. I'll be bound to say you could sing a good one if you liked."

"I'll no' say that I'm vera musical," Davie replied, "though I could, mebbe, gie ye a stave. But," he went on, "I'll no' be the first to begin. Anither o' ye maun start aff. A guid example's aye easier followed."

"Then, Maurice," said Ashwin, "sing us that bush-faller's song of Flash Harry's. I heard you humming the chorus of it to-day."

Maurice, thus appealed to, after a little persuasion, sung to a lively air, with tolerable voice, the following, which Flash Harry had either composed himself or had picked up somewhere lately. This Harry, still young in years, was one of those men who, having spent most of their adult existence at the gold-diggings in one or other of the Colonies, and having there acquired a roving, independent habit of life, feeling themselves to be their own page 14masters, still disdain to engage in day-work for any employer; and even when the whim or the force of circumstances leads them into other fields of labour, they continue to preserve their overstrained feelings of independence, and take contract work only. Harry and his mate had now been working in the bush districts of the North Island for two or three seasons. He had come to like the life, and the song that Maurice now sung was known as his.

O give me the life in the forest,
Away from the crowd and the crush;
What reck though the work be the sorest,
There's no place for me like the bush;
For the ring of the axe,
And the tree as it cracks,
And the earth-shaking crash at it falls,
Are the sounds that I love,
All others above,
Heard when the gay tui calls.
We are out when the first birds are singing,
And home as they settle to rest,
And each evening the wharé is ringing
With laughter, with song, and with jest.
O the ring of the axe,
And the tree as it cracks,
And the earth-shaking crash as it falls,
Are the sounds that I love,
All others above—
Hark! how the gay tui calls!
Let clodhoppers plough, then, and harrow;
Let larrikins loiter at flax;
Let the navvy ply shovel and barrow,
But give me the swing of the axe.
For the ring of the axe,
And the tree as it cracks,
And the earth-shaking crash as it falls,
Are the sounds that I love,
All others above,
Heard when the gay tui calls.

page 15

"No' a bad sang," said Davie; "but I'm dootfu' if chappin' doon trees is wark that I wad be likely to get fond o'."

"We'll trouble you now for your song, Davie," said Ashwin.

Davie did not take quite so much persuasion as some young ladies do, with

Their pretty oath by yea and nay,
They could not, would not, durst not play,

when asked to favour an assembled company, but "he mis-dooted if he was in vera guid voice the nicht." After a preliminary cough or two, however, he lilted forth the following song, which he said a mate of his used to sing:

O here's to the joys of the Wallaby Track,
Then it's up with the swag and the billy,
For though work may be plenty, or work may be slack,
It's nice to lie down in the sun on your back—
O a lot of that work will not kill ye.
The burden is light when the shoulders are broad,
And then there's no reason to hurry.
The stages are short and our feet are well shod,
And we make the pace suit to the length of the road—
O there's nothing in life to make worry.
The squatter may growl at the prices of wool,
And the farmer complain of the weather.
But though money be tight, and though times may be dull,
It's little we care if our tucker-bag's full—
They can all go to ruin together.
You may talk of the honour on labour attends,
You may sing of its profits and pleasure—
He's a fool that through life on his labour depends;
I never took work to be one of my friends—
I get on much better with leisure.
Then it's off and away on the Wallaby Track,
And it's up with the swag and the billy;
For though work may be plenty, or work may be slack,
It's nice to lie down in the sun on your back—
O a lot of that work will not kill ye.

page 16

Shortly afterwards they turned in, Westall at Ashwin's invitation securing the spare bunk. Davie, when asked if he would take up his quarters in the shed, remarked that as the night appeared to be frosty, he would make himself as comfortable as he could on some sacks on the floor in front of the fire.

"I'm no' ower parteek'lar whaur I lie doon," he said, "a guid conscience is aye a quiet bedfellow." And his heavy breathing soon afterwards testified to the profoundness of his repose. He "slept the sleep of the just," or of the unjust, for it is difficult to say which of the two sleep the sounder.