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With the Lost Legion in New Zealand

Chapter VII — Bush-Whacking

page 109

Chapter VII

It was on the day following Te Kepa's successful reconnaissance that the troops destined to form the party for the General's projected march through the bush to Taranaki were warned to hold themselves in readiness to start the next morning, and I was delighted when Mr Roach informed us that our mess had been included in the party of forty Rangers that had been selected as one of the units of the column, which was to be composed of three companies of the 14th Regiment, eighty Kupapas and our forty Rangers.

There was a considerable diversity of opinion among our men as to the advisability of this movement, all the old hands being unanimous that it would be a bitter hard undertaking, especially as we were to be accompanied by a long string of pack-horses, without which it is impossible for regular troops to move. These would impede our progress and necessitate much arduous fatigue in the way of road-chopping and getting them across the deep gullies, creeks and watercourses that everyone knew ran from the mountain down between its shoulders and spurs, over which our route must lie.

Every yard of the journey ran through dense bush, and although Father Pezant had, with assistance of Maori guides, walked the distance page 110in two days, yet that was a very different pair of shoes to conveying a long string of pack-horses, heavily laden, over the same ground.

Then again, would there be any fighting? Our sages thought not. The natives themselves rarely used the route. Father Pezant declared the country to be quite deserted, and the Kupapas also asserted that that part of the district had never been inhabited, although none of them were conversant with the locality.

We had therefore the pleasing prospect before us of slogging hard work without any fun to enliven it, and for the first time I heard colonial irregulars chew the rag (grumble).

Now there are two qualities of grumblers. One is the open grumbler who grouses because it is his nature to do so and he can't help himself, yet when it comes to the point does his duty and performs his work better, perhaps, than a more complacent man. Among such may be reckoned most old sailors and soldiers. The others are the stealthy grumbling dogs who incite young soldiers to mutiny, taking jolly good care to keep in the background, out of trouble, themselves. These are dangerous scoundrels who ought to be flogged and hung without mercy; no close season should be allowed for such vermin.

Of the first lot mentioned was old Jack, a typical grousing old shell-back whose whole existence, if you believed him, was a grievance. Still he was always one of the first to fall in for any extra work or hardship the corps might be called on to face, and would volunteer for any nasty job, grumbling while he performed it, as if he were a victim to bitter page 111injustice, and had been forced against his will and out of his turn to undertake it. In fact, as Tim put it, "Sure ould Jack wud grumble if he got a first-class passage to heaven, wid free drinks at all the stoppin' places. But maybe he'd be right, seeing all his friends and acquaintances are in the other place, and maybe the ould boy wud fancy he'd been put in the wrong train agin his own inclinations."

Of the second class of grumblers was Mete Kingi Te Anaua, a chief of the highest rank among the Kupapas. It must be remembered that Te Kepa, although the head fighting chief, was by no means the paramount chief of his tribe, nor was he even, by birth, of first-class importance, for although of aristocratic descent he owed his position to election as the most highly intellectual fighting man among the Wanganui. Of this there was no doubt, and on the war-path his word was law, not to be quibbled at nor questioned, but in camp the men were very prone to be led away by the arguments emanating from such a high-born source as the Right Dishonourable Mete Kingi, who did everything in his power to render the utility of his tribe nugatory. Also it must not be supposed the Kupapas were fighting on our side on account of any love they bore the white man, far from it, the reason they fought being the intense hatred they entertained against the hostile tribes, their old-time enemies, who were in arms against us and also against the crazy, fanatical religion that had turned these tribes from being whitewashed Christians into howling bloodthirsty murderers.

Massa Mete Kingi hated the white man, and page 112although self-preservation prevented him from open rebellion, still he wasted no opportunity of thwarting and hampering their movements.

This projected march of the General was of course far too good a chance for Mete to let slide, so he made his game accordingly, and played it for all he was worth.

Colonel McDonnell, however, had foreseen the probability of him raising trouble. He had been absent from camp for two days, but returned that night at twelve P.M., bringing with him Dr Featherstone, an old settler in whom the Maoris had great confidence.

These two gentlemen on their arrival went to the Kupapas' line, where they quickly ascertained that these Johnnies, prompted by Mete Kingi, had made up their minds not to start; in fact they announced their determination to at once return home.

A general runanga (meeting) was promptly assembled, to which Mr Roach, knowing my anxiety to hear and see everything appertaining to native customs, kindly called me.

It was indeed a weird sight, the Maoris squatting in a semicircle, with their chins on their knees, round three sides of the fire, the gap between the ends of their formation being occupied by the Colonel, Dr Featherstone and Te Kepa, while a few of the principal chiefs squatted behind them.

On my arrival I at once took post in rear of the Colonel, and was immediately struck by the dogged, ugly look on the faces of the contumacious natives, whose eyes, lit up by the firelight, looked ferocious page 113to the last degree, and I could scarcely believe that these were the same men who had joined so joyously in battle only two days before; but alas, it was so.

Colonel McDonnell and Dr Featherstone harangued them. It was useless; threats and entreaties were in vain. They squatted there, a sulky, ugly mob, one and all declaring they would not march, they would return home; let the white men go by themselves.

This refusal on their part was a very serious matter, as without their knowledge and bush-craft the expedition must end in a fiasco. Mete knew this and chortled in his joy. But Mete Kingi had on this occasion, as on many another, overlooked a very powerful factor, for among the crowd was a relative of his own and a much bigger pot, as, squatting quietly behind the Colonel, was Hori Kingi Te Anaua, who was the head chief of the Wanganui.

This ancient-time warrior was a very old man, now long past war, but he had been a mighty fighting man before the Lord, and one who, not so many years back, had been regarded not only by his tribe but by all the surrounding tribes as quite the cock of the walk, while even now the glamour of his early deeds enveloped him with a halo, and he was looked upon by the Wanganui as more than human. This old nobleman was of such a great age that he rarely interfered with tribal business, and was occasionally overlooked by young and pushing upstarts such as Mete, but he was there, having accompanied the Taua, not in his official capacity but rather as a critic, so that page 114he might form opinions of modern warfare and contrast them with old-time methods, also that he might once more steep his senses in the odour of battle.

He had moreover been a firm friend and protector of the white man from the early days, besides which he was a great personal friend of Dr Featherstone, who now drew him aside and besought his help.

At the moment they rejoined the meeting the Kupapas had again vociferated that they would go home, and there were indications of a rough house, but the instant the grand old warrior raised his still enormous bulk from the ground the silence of death fell on the crowd. For a minute he glared round on the squatting throng, every man of whom, fearing to meet his indignant eye, held his head down, then with a stamp of his foot he spake.

"Listen, ye men of the Wanganui, you who have refused to march with the Pakeha" (white man). "It is well, go home; but I, Hori Kingi, will go with them, even though I go alone. It shall not be said that I deserted them; but I warn you all that if you desert me I will never again return to Wanganui. Henceforth the white men shall be my only friends, and my bones shall rest in Taranaki."

Such an awful threat had never been uttered before. Why, the very thought that their great hero's bones might be buried in the land of their hated enemies was dreadful. Not one of them dare even think of such a diabolical catastrophe. It was worse than blasphemy, and it took some minutes before the frightful idea could percolate into their understandings. There they squatted, openmouthed and with goggling eyes, until the same page 115thought seemed to flash simultaneously into their dazed brains, when they all raised their voices to let go the piteous howl: "We go, father, we go," and Mete Kingi was sold again.

Next morning the column moved out of camp, eighty picked Kupapas leading with an air of jollity about them as if the row of the previous night had been forgotten and forgiven, though I noticed that old Hori Kingi marched with Mr Roach as if he were still a little sore over his tribe's mis-behaviour.

In rear of the Kupapas we marched; then a long line of pack-horses, while three companies of the 14th Regiment brought up the rear. The General having heard that Father Pezant had completed the journey in two days had reckoned on our getting through in three, and therefore three days' cooked rations had been issued to all hands.

The Maoris, however, the most improvident men in the world, especially as in this case they had not intended to come, had eaten most of theirs before we started, and then, in fear of Hori, had said nothing about it.

Anyway we were off. For the first few miles the track, although a very rough one, was well defined, and we pushed on, but just before noon we came to a very deep and narrow gully. The Maoris crossed this, so did we, but when it came to the pack-horses' turn the column came to a dead stop. They certainly could not get down, and, supposing they were chucked over the edge and survived, it was equally certain they could not get out at the other side, so it was a case of getting the picks and spades off them and making one page 116slanting road down and another up. The Tommies tackled this job, but it was very slow work, and we lost a lot of time. At last all hands and the packhorses were got across, and we proceeded, but had to camp, having covered a far shorter distance than the General had expected we should have done.

Next morning we again made an early start, but were brought up by more gullies, some of which we crossed as we had the first one, others we had to bridge in a way that I shall presently describe.

The Maoris up to now had been very useful, though they did not care for the work, still, thanks to Hori's presence, they had given no trouble, yet early in the day they had allowed the two Hau Hau prisoners we had as guides to escape.

These two fellows fled along the track, followed of course by a party of Kupapas who were at once put into good humour by the chance of spilling a little blood. The prisoners in their flight came across a party of seven Hau Haus, who, unaware of our proximity, were quietly enjoying their breakfast, and shouted to them to escape, but the Hau Haus, unable to realise that the white man had penetrated so far into their fastnesses, refused to budge and continued their meal. The fugitives, declining to tarry, escaped, but the alfresco repast was rudely interrupted by the Kupapas, who surprised the picnicking party, killing four men and capturing a girl.

This little interlude of blood somewhat cheered up the Kupapas, but the guides were gone, and the track that had been getting less distinct now entirely disappeared.

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Other misfortunes now overtook us. The natives, having eaten most of their rations previous to starting, now demanded food, and caused trouble, still remaining sulky even when a day's rations were issued to them from the slender stock carried on the pack-horses, and then, to make us thoroughly cheerful, floods of water (you could not call it rain) began to fall, and continued to do so day and night without the slightest intermission.

We were in a hole. Guides gone, road lost, bush thick, a deluge falling, rations short, and many a man would have turned back, but the General, good man, was made of the right sort of stuff, and "go on" was the order.

"What," said he, "the road lost, is it? Then chop one," and our crowd, although they might grumble like hell, started in to give a lead.

The New Zealand bush is a stiff one to tackle, composed as it is of enormous trees growing close together and a dense undergrowth of evergreens and ferns. From the trees descend huge vines, some of them many inches in circumference, either hanging straight up and down, or draped in graceful festoons from tree to tree, both the trunks and branches of the latter being covered with patches of orchids and other parasites. Here and there amid the undergrowth springs up an elegant punga (tree fern), a broad leaf or a koninonino (fuchsia tree), while an occasional patch of lawyers, a thorny bush whose name is most appropriate, for if you once get into its clutches you can only get out pretty nearly naked, lies in wait for the unwary, these and many more being bound together into page 118an impenetrable tangle by the ever-present souple jack and ground vine.

After reading the above very short and very imperfect description you will be able to understand that a New Zealand bush is not an easy one to cut a road through, even for pack-horses, especially when, as in this case, the line you wish to follow led you across the shoulders and spurs of a huge mountain which were furrowed by innumerable deep gullies, watercourses, and rivers.

The New Zealand bush is a very beautiful one, yet a very silent and lonely one; not a sound is to be heard in it, with the exception of the doleful dirge of the wind among the tree-tops, the coo of pigeons, the occasional ka, ka of the New Zealand parrot, or the rarer, bell-like note of the Tui bird.

However, such as it was, we had to chop our way, for over forty miles, through it, so with plenty of bad language, but heaps of determination, we buckled to and tackled the job.

Te Kepa took the lead with his men, tomahawk in hand, and chopped away the vines; our men followed closely after, who cut away the undergrowth and cleared a road sufficiently wide enough for the pack-horses following behind us, these taking every opportunity of tumbling down, entangling themselves among the vines, rubbing off their loads and generally making themselves a darned nuisance. Of course we had to have the scouts out on all sides of us, and likewise strong covering parties, as it would have been far too good a chance for the Hau Hau to have missed, not to have taken advantage of us as we floundered along that miserable path. They did not do so; page 119why, we never heard, but I fancy myself it was on account of the unceasing downpour of cold rain, which was certainly quite excuse enough to keep any self-respecting savage in his happy home.

All this work fell very heavy on us, as the regulars were of but little use in the bush, either as axemen or coverers, but we should have made light of that had it not been for the rain, that not only drenched us but turned the soft loamy bush soil into liquid mud, in which we sank nearly to the knee, and forced us to corduroy the path so as to enable the wretched pack-horses to get any footing, while men, horses, packs, arms and everything soon became plastered and caked with mud.

Presently we came to a gully with perpendicular rocky banks, in the bed of which, swollen by the rain, raged a torrent. Fortunately it was not a very wide one, not more than from thirty to thirty-five feet, but it was quite sixty feet in depth. It was impossible to make roads up and down this fellow; our old picks and spades, probably used by Wellington's men in the Peninsular War, were no use here, and we had neither drills nor explosives. No, it must be bridged; and I wondered how this was to be done. Now we had in our heterogeneous corps several old and skilled bushmen (men who live and work in the bush), the two boss men of whom were Nova Scotians, and what these two men, Brothers Jake and Vic M'Farlane, did not know about how to handle timber was not worth learning.

These two men now pushed in front and examined carefully the enormous trees that grew close to the edge of the ravine, out of which they selected two page 120that grew close together, and then called for six men who they knew to be the most skilful axemen, to whom Jake gave instructions, turning at the same time a deaf ear to an Engineer officer who advanced to propound some learned theories, but who fell back, choked off by the good-humoured though scarcely respectful admonition: "Here, be a good boy, Johnny; now run away and play nicely by yourself," tendered him by the Blue-nose giant.

Then at the word, "Now get to it, boys! "the eight men sprang at the two trees like tigers.

It was simply marvellous to see these men work, every blow falling, notwithstanding the rain and slippery axe helves, just where it was aimed; while the men, although they put their whole souls into the job, did not waste an ounce of strength. First of all a large and deep scarf was opened in the trunks of the trees on the ravine side, two men working one opposite the other, each blow so timed to succeed the other as to make huge chips fly in all directions. At the same time the other two men were attacking the far side, though the depth of the wound on the creek side was kept well in advance of the other.

After some time both trees emitted deep groans, which drew a cheer from the bystanders though the axemen still continued to ply their weapons with unabated vigour; and the trees, as if in anguish, groaned and groaned again and again. Suddenly Jake yelled, "Spell-o," when every axe ceased, and after a few words with his brother he approached the General, who, with most of the officers, was watching the proceedings.

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"Say, Boss" drawled the unsophisticated bushman to the astonished old gentleman, "you and these 'ere galoots had better git, or I guess you'll be fouled by some of them darned monkey ropes, an' I kalkelate they'll bring down a heap of branches and dead wood."

"Ah," quoth the General, "I presume you think we may be in some danger in remaining here when the trees fall."

"You bet, Boss; you've struck it in once," replied the unabashed Blue-nose, who promptly returned to his mates.

"Your men," said the General, turning to Mr Roach, "do not seem to be very conversant with military etiquette."

"No, sir," replied Mr Roach; "some of them are a very rough lot, but I assure you, sir, no disrespect nor offence was meant."

"Quite so," returned the General, "and no offence is taken, but by gad we will take his advice and fall back a bit. That fellow knows his work."

"You bet, Boss," drawled one of the staff, and they all fell back, laughing.

Jake and his pard had gone back alone to their respective trees. "Are you ready, Vic?" yelled Jake. "Let her go." And the two axes fell like one in a succession of lightning blows. "She is coming, mate," yells Jake.

"Mine too," gasps his brother, as rending cracks and portentous groans burst from the now shivering and swaying trees and rend the air.

"Stand clear, mate," yell both men as the now rocking trees make a half turn inwards on their bases, and then, bending gracefully over, as if page 122bowing to their Creator, their sky-kissed tops sink lower and lower, until with a rending crash that echoes through the bush like thunder the two mighty monarchs of the forest fall side by side across the ravine, while ripping, tearing crashes announce the fact that the tough vines attached to them are tearing off huge limbs from other trees and, together with the concussion, bringing down a shower of dead wood.

How the two axemen escaped was to me a mystery. I dearly love a fine tree, and, although by no means a religious man, always seem to fancy they are the property of the Almighty and that it is an act of sacrilege to chop one down—this idea still sticking to me after years of bush life.

No such opinions, however, were entertained by the godless Blue-noses, who no sooner had the trees crashed down than they leapt on to table-topped stumps, jumped into the air, cracking their heels together, flapping their arms up and down and crowing like cocks.

Rude as was their ebullition of delight, their wonderful skill was manifest, for the two mighty trunks lay across the gully, side touching side, and the framework of the bridge was an accomplished fact.

"Guss you lobsters may be trusted to fill up that crack," remarked Jake to a disgusted-looking colour-sergeant of the regulars. "Come on, boys, let's lop and top t'other side," and he ran across the bole of one of the trees as if it had been a coach road.

There was plenty of hard work on the other side, so while the Tommies made a platform page 123for the horses to cross by filling up the interval between the boles with brushwood, fern and mud, we set to to clear away the abatis of huge broken branches so as to allow them to get off the bridge when over.

Faith, I found it bitter hard work, it being my first attempt at manual labour, as it was also my first attempt to use axe or tomahawk, and it was heart-breaking to compare my clumsy efforts with those of my experienced comrades. Moreover, although blessed with great muscular strength, I quickly found out that without skill it was of but little use to me, as my hands became dreadfully blistered and very painful, though I still continued slogging away for all I was worth.

At last we were able to start getting the horses across, and a rotten job we had to manage the terrified animals, very many of whom had never seen a bridge in their lives before. Nevertheless by blindfolding them and making a staid, quiet old brute give them a lead we managed to get all over except four, who, plunging midway, fell off the rough structure, loads and all, into the now raging torrent, where they were at once swept away, and of course, as rations were scarce, all these loads were biscuits.

By the time we had got them over it was time to bivouac, so we set about the hopeless task of trying to make ourselves comfortable- Our mess, first of all, cut a lot of thick poles, which we placed side by side on the poached, sodden ground, then covered these with small branches of undergrowth and piled on the top a two-foot thickness of wet fern.

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While we were doing this Pierre and George had lighted a fire. What, a fire in that pitiless downpour? Yes, gentlemen, a fire. First of all Pierre sought out an old miri log, perhaps the hardest wood in the world, so hard it is almost impossible to cross-cut it, but it will split like matchwood and is as inflammable as pitch. Off this log Pierre split very many splinters and pieces, George in the meantime raising a platform of poles some half-foot above the mud. Under cover of his pot Pierre collected some of the inside bark of a tree, and, producing an oily piece of tow used for cleaning his carbine, under cover of George's bucket, held inverted like an umbrella, a fire is lit on the platform, fed steadily for a time with miri splinters, until it gains heat and power, when larger pieces are added, until eventually the fire gains sufficient heat to withstand the rain for the bucket to be boiled and tea made, for a pannikin of which we were very thankful.

As soon as our fire was in full swing others were lit from it, but the incessant rain at last got the best of them and they dwindled away, leaving the camp in inky darkness.

I was on guard that night and did my first sentry go, passing two hours crouching in the mud, peering into the black darkness, and listening to the rush of the rain and the chattering of my own teeth. I was but little better off when relieved, as all I could do was to throw myself down on a heap of soaked fern and cover myself with my drenched blanket.

Worn out by the unaccustomed labour, aching in every limb of my body and suffering great pain page 125from my hands, I got but little sleep, yet felt thankful when the dim daylight announced another day. Not that it would bring us much comfort, for the moment our sopping blankets were rolled up and we had swallowed a mouthful of soaked mouldy biscuit and putrid pork, the word was given to turn to, and again we started the endless chopping.

My hands, however, were in such a state as to preclude my doing my work, and I was very nervous of being ragged by my comrades, as but little sympathy is ever shown in a corps such as ours to, a man who is unable to do his share of work unless he is incapacitated by the steel or lead of the enemy, and I was quite prepared to hear myself sneered at as a kid-gloved new chum, or to be growled at as a waster who shirked his work and shoved his bit on his mates. In a crowd like ours men were not over-delicate in their satire, nor particularly considerate for the feelings of others.

We worked in relays, ten men chopping, ten men clearing away the cut brushwood, while the remaining twenty men held the workers' carbines and rested, two men out of each section of four working at a time.

Now I was in the second relief, Tim and myself having to replace Jack and Hutton, so that when spell-o was called we pushed forward, handing them their own and our carbines and taking from them the axes they had been using.

Stepping forward I approached Jack to hand him the carbines, when he noticed my hands, which were much swollen and quite raw.

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"'Ere, look' ere, mate," growled the old grumbler, "yer mud hooks ain't fit for this 'ere job, just you hold the ruddy carbines. Old Jack does your spell. Oh, clap a stopper over your jaw. You ain't no blankity blank shirker, and if any blooming swine guys yer they'll come athwart Jack's hawser, d—n 'em. Now you shove off." And all the day the old ruffian did my work for me, helped occasionally by Hutton, who reported my state to Mr Roach.

The latter took me to the surgeon of the 14th, who did what he could for me, but I was unable to do any more axe-work that trip.

It would be tedious for me to recapitulate that miserable march day by day; suffice it to say that every day the same work had to be done, gullies had to be bridged or roads cut down their banks, and these gullies and rivers grew more numerous as we reached our destination.

On the night of the fourth day the last of our rations was consumed, horseflesh being issued in lieu, but the downpour of rain, that never ceased for a moment, prevented any chance of cooking the raw sodden lumps of flesh served out to us. On the same night the Colonel's brother, Ensign McDonnell, volunteered to push on and try to bring a relief party out to meet us.

He started next morning, reaching the frontier post the same night, and at once started back again, guiding a relief party of soldiers loaded with food. These met us on the evening of the sixth day, on the morning of which the General had sent on the Maoris. This supply of food, small as it was—my share consisted of one biscuit—was page 127much appreciated, and on the morning of the seventh day we extricated ourselves from the infernal bush, and as we did so the rain suddenly ceased and the glorious sun shone out.

Never before, do I suppose, has such a gang of wretched-looking objects ever been mustered: drenched and sodden by five days and nights of unceasing rain, plastered from head to foot with mud, our clothes torn to rags by the bush, hung in dripping shreds, while our unshorn faces, filthy equipment and rusty weapons made a picture I shall never forget.

Our men took a speedy and practicable way of getting rid of our superfluous coating of filth, for on reaching a river we laid down our arms and belts and then marched deliberately into it, washing ourselves and rags at the same time, which, considering we had not a particle of soap in the whole outfit, was perhaps the most expeditious way of regaining that purity which is considered next to godliness, and was in fact the only virtue approaching it used in the ranks of the Rangers.

On the evening of the same day we limped into Mataitawa, where our weary pilgrimage ended, and we were the recipients of unbounded hospitality from the settlers.

A few days' spell with plenty of good food and new clothing made us forget past hardships, and we mustered gaily, when called upon to do so, for the return march along the coast.

There was much controversy for a long time as to whether this bush march had done good or not. It had certainly shown the Hau Haus that they could no longer rely on their forests as invincible page 128protections, and had also taught the troops how utterly impracticable a string of pack-horses were in the bush, and that in future they must, like us Rangers, hump their own swags, as it does not pay to waste seven days over a march that should have been completed easily in three, to say nothing of the awful labour their presence entailed.

We started our return march expecting severe fighting, but were disappointed, as with the exception of a sharp brush at a large village named Waikoko, which the Rangers and Kupapas were ordered to rush, we met no opposition at all.

Here the Kupapas behaved badly, refusing to charge and drawing off to one side, this conduct being caused not through funk of the enemy, but because they entertained grave doubts as to the discriminating powers of the supporting regulars, who, they opined, might shoot them from behind as the Tommies had the unfortunate habit of loosing off at any Maori they spotted in front of them and then inquiring if he were an enemy or not.

True, they always apologised when in error, but our friendlies did not consider that that was a sufficient salve for their injured sterns, therefore no sooner had we deployed for the charge than they withdrew to one side, sat down and looked on.

The General thereupon threw forward a company of the 4th, who, game as pebbles, charged alongside of us, and notwithstanding a heavy fire we rushed pell-mell into the place, sweeping out the defenders, who fled, leaving behind them several dead bodies, our loss being one man killed and seven wounded, among whom was Tim, though I was delighted to find out not severely.

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Every Bullet has its Billet.

Every Bullet has its Billet.

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Two days after this pleasant little interlude we reached the camp on the Waingangora River, where the field force was broken up, ourselves being ordered to return to Patea and go into camp, tents and camp equipment being served out to us for that purpose.