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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter IX

page 50

Chapter IX.

Davie became very intimate with O'Byrne during the latter's visits to the township, never neglecting an opportunity of making friendly advances, and even found out his wharé, and spent a night there much to the annoyance, apparently, of old Dan, who was even more crabbed and uncommunicative than usual; the production by Davie of a bottle of Brasch's "special blend" not having much effect in mollifying him even. This extravagance on Davie's part was a most unusual proceeding for him, and in order to meet this and other outlay he must have drawn on some reserve fund in his possession, for though he had done a little work for Brasch he had got little for it.

Again, a second time be visited O'Byrne's, and on this occasion old Dan made himself still more disagreeable than before, and showed plainly how unwelcome Davie's presence in the hut was. O'Byrne, too, seemed less hospitably inclined.

During the evening he expressed his intention of going cattle hunting in the morning.

"We're nearly out of mate, ye see; and, faith, it's toime Jacob himself had a bit agin. He'll be afther thinkin' I've forgot him entoirely. Av we don't give him mate he'll give us no whisky; and I'm thinkin' we could do with a bottle or two agin. Eh, Dan?"

Dan gave a grunt of acquiescence, or dissent, for it would be hard to say which it was meant to convey, and then said:

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"Begorra, it's a loicense for the wharé here we'll be afther wantin' soon, so that we may be able to provoide dacently for the convaynience and enthertainment av thravellers. Faith, an' it's somethin' av the koind well be needin' soon," he concluded, with a dark look at Davie.

The latter now produced a bottle of whisky from his swag, and through its influence matters began to take a slightly more agreeable turn.

Davie left very early on the following morning, with the avowed purpose of making for the township again; but after be had passed out of O'Byrne's clearing, he turned aside into the standing bush, and, keeping within the shelter of it, came back to within a short distance of the wharé which he had just left. Here he took up a position from which, while hidden himself, he could see the hut and its surroundings. He watched O'Byrne and Dan leave shortly afterwards with dogs and guns; and judging that the pursuit on which they were engaged would keep them away till late in the afternoon, he selected the most comfortable spot that he could find, made a couch of ferns and lay down and smoked his pipe at his ease, and subsequently indulged in a sound sleep for some hours. It was midday when he roused himself, opened his tucker-bag, and made a fair meal of what he found there.

He did not boil his billy, being afraid lest the smoke from the fire might betray his presence, but contented himself with a drink from a small stream that ran in a gully near by. After this he kept watch; and towards evening saw O'Byrne and Dan return, heavily laden with portions of a beast which they had killed. Still Davie waited and watched.

His patience was becoming exhausted, when, as darkness set in, he was just able to discern them as, having again left the hut, they came in the direction in which he himself lay concealed.

He observed as they passed close by him that old Dan carried a lantern, as yet unlit, while O'Byrne had in his hand page 52what appeared to be a coil of rope. After they had proceeded for some little distance into the bush, where daylight had entirely disappeared, the lantern was lighted; and Davie, who by this time was making a stealthy attempt to follow, muttered to himself:

"Ecod, I hae ye noo, or I'm mistaken, my bonnie lads."

He was now able to advance with somewhat less difficulty, for the light showed the locality for the time being of the others, but he had to be very careful not to make much noise in threading his way through the supple jacks and undergrowth which at times impeded his progress.

O'Byrne and his companion made better headway than Davie, as they knew their ground and were following a sort of track, ill-defined indeed, and to a stranger hardly discernible even in the daylight, but by these men, who were acquainted with every natural feature of the locality, capable of being followed in the dark with the aid of the lantern. This path Davie found once or twice, and as it was at least clear of supple jacks, he could get along with greater facility while upon it, but invariably lost it again after a few minutes' travelling.

O'Byrne and Dan proceeded in this way for about a quarter of a mile, generally ascending as they advanced, till they reached a part of the section where the ground became steeper and more broken. Here a large creek, coming down from the ranges at the back, obliquely intersected O'Byrne's land, and at this place ran through a deep gorge which the water in the course of ages had channelled out of the rock. The sides of this gorge were so precipitous in general that it was only at one or two places that it was possible for a person to descend to the bed of the stream; while it was well nigh impossible to follow the creek itself along its rocky bottom, where waterfall and pool succeeded each other for the greater part of its course.

The sides of the cañon, where not too precipitous, were clothed with creeping vines and shrubs that had found root-page 53hold in the crevices of the rocks and on the ledges and less abrupt declivities.

Having reached a point where the roaring of the stream could he distinctly heard as it tumbled down Us rocky channel, but while still a short distance away from its steep bank, Dan and O'Byrne separated a little so as to guard against forming by a succession of footprints anything like a beaten track, and, having reached the edge, extinguished the light. Old Dan, being well acquainted with every inch of the ground, here proceeded cautiously to feel his way down a steep and rock-strewn slope, thickly covered with undergrowth, to where it met the precipice that rose almost sheer from the stream below. Here a rata tree had found root and reared its majestic bulk high above the roaring torrent, over which it partly leaned. On the up-stream side of the tree the wall of rock rose unscaleable to a much greater height, there being no such slope as that by which old Dan had found his way down. A ledge of rock, however, ran along the face from below where the rata grew, affording precarious foothold to anyone bold enough to venture along it.

Round one of the roots of this rata tree three or four lengths of fencing wire had been wound, and the ends, twisted together into a sort of rope, hung downward for five or six feet, reaching nearly to the ledge below. Dan, laying hold of this rope, lowered himself cautiously on to the ledge, and edging his way along it, assisting himself in his progress by laying hold on some tough vines and creepers which hung from above, and on some artificial supports which had been affixed at one or two places, gained at length a wider space, and, passing inwards round the point of a projecting rock, reached the low entrance to a cave.

He seemed to know his way perfectly here, for without striking a light (Dan was a particularly cautious old gentleman) he laid his hand on something which had evidently been placed handy, just within the entrance, and sat down and waited.

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Meanwhile O'Byrne, when he parted from Dan, had proceeded a little higher up, to where a tree threw its arms over the face of the cliffs. Having attached a stone to one end of the rope which he had brought with him, he succeeded, after one or two attempts, in throwing it over one of these limbs which visibly stood out between him and the sky. He then slowly lowered the rope till the shaking of it from below warned him that it had reached its destination. After waiting a few seconds, and the rope having been again violently shaken, he hauled on it, and, after pulling steadily for a little time, he reached out a hooked stick, and drawing it again towards him, safely landed a small keg. This procedure was repeated a second time, and then the rope was drawn down from the limb, and Dennis stood waiting the reappearance of his comrade.

The reader will have guessed by this time what the contents of the kegs were, and why so much secrecy was observed by O'Byrne and Old Dan in the work of the night These men were the owners of a private still, and the kegs contained whisky—the real "mountain dew."

In his early days Dan had had experience in the manufacture of "potheen" in Old Ireland; and when, after many vicissitudes in life, he had joined his relative in New Zealand, his practical eye saw how the cave in the section might be profitably utilised. Indeed, it is not unlikely that the section was acquired subsequent to the discovery of the cave, and after a good deal of exploration in various localities had been made with illicit distillation as the chief end in view.

The cave itself was eminently adapted for the purpose. It was completely hidden from the observation of anyone traversing the bush in the neighbourhood, as it could be seen from no direction, the view of the entrance being blocked by a jutting point of rock and by some ake-ake bushes and other shrubby growth. Though not of large dimensions, there was yet ample room for the requirements of distillation, even in a page 55much larger way than was carried on. The still used was of the smallest, and stood in one corner over a rude fireplace; and the tubs were not numerous or large, having been formed out of two or three barrels cut in halves, and smuggled up at various times. A stream of ice-cold water ran through the cave, and was diverted so as to run, when required, continuously into one of these tubs, where was coiled the "worm," from which the spirit, having been condensed, slowly trickled, at first in the form of "low wines," but after a second distillation, as the pure "mountain dew."

Though the cave was not large as far as one was able to penetrate, yet some rents and crevices in the rocks, opening out perhaps into larger chambers, ran an unknown distance under the hill, and through these the smoke found egress, ultimately getting vent far away through cracks and fissures to the surface.

It may be remembered that a little before the date of this story some men who had been pig-hunting, or who had lost their way for a time in the bush, reported the discovery of an incipient volcano in this locality. They averred that they had seen smoke issuing from a rocky knob which they had crossed; but their tale was generally disbelieved; nor could they indicate or afterwards again find the particular spot where the remarkable natural phenomenon was to be seen. The smoke that they saw came from the fire by which Old Dan sat and sucked his pipe half a mile away. He was careful to use only the driest wood ever afterwards.

The disposal of the spirit after its manufacture is, of course, always the most difficult part of the business; and as yet O'Byrne had been able to deal only with the landlord of the Cosmopolitan, who, indeed, was privy to the undertaking from the start, and had helped to provide the plant, and continued to supply most of the materials used in the manufacture. He kept a large stock of poultry; and out of the large quantity of barley and other grain, procured page 56ostensibly for feeding these, O'Byrne got his supply, returning with it in the dark nights. Sugar was more easily obtained. But Old Dan was a man of resource and well up to the business, and could utilise many other products in making the spirit—potatoes, beetroot, maize—and a considerable quantity of these, especially potatoes, were usually grown on the plot of ground which had been partly stumped and cultivated round the wharé.

The kegs of whisky were brought into the Cosmopolitan by O'Byrne on the old black mare, each one in a sack, which also generally contained some joints of beef or pork, the products of the chase.

The whisky thus obtained by Brasch was mixed or blended—his "special blend"—with about equal parts of whisky procured in the ordinary way from some wholesale house; but it so happened that he had run short of the latter on the occasion of Davie's first visit, and in consequence it was nearly all the pure "potheen" that that individual had smacked his lips over. His suspicions were aroused by its flavour, and were strengthened by some other circumstances connected with O'Byrne's visits to the house, and his stay there; and he determined to watch and discover, if possible, if any private still was at work, and if so, where. He judged that if his suspicions were well founded, and he could make himself master of the secret, there would be some real and tangible advantages accruing to himself, for it would be necessary for those engaged in the business either to buy his silence or take him into partnership. The latter alternative he viewed with a favourable eye; the life would suit him, as he said to himself, "juist doon to the grun'—no' ower much wark to dae, my ain boss, and whusky for the drinkin'." Could he have looked into the future and have seen what was written there, he would have fled from the place with a face white and scared.