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With the Lost Legion in New Zealand

Chapter VIII — Hide-and-Seek With Te Kooti

page 380

Chapter VIII
Hide-and-Seek With Te Kooti

The Taupo Field Force now had to foot it in what the men called a devil's dance—i.e. marching and counter-marching all over the big inland plateau—for Te Kooti, having had sufficient righting for the time being, simply refused to be brought to book. Ye gods! how we poor scouts were worked day and night, as on foot through the bush and across mountains, or on horseback, over the plains, we searched for the beggar high and low. Occasionally we would locate him, and, making for camp as hard as we could pelt, would report to the fretting O.C. we had him spotted. In a moment the column would start walking all day, or scrambling all night, till we surrounded the place, then rush it, only to find the still smouldering fires of his bivouac. Back would march the disgusted column, and would scarcely have time to eat before fresh scouts tore in with the report, "We have got Te Kooti located." Away would go the swearing column, only to be sold again; and thus the dance went on. The fact of the matter was that the Hau Hau scouts were just as good as our own, and kept our camps under such strict observation that no party of men could leave them day or night without Te Kooti being at once warned of the movement, and so we could never depend on his remaining in the same place for more than a few hours at a stretch.

page 381

Eventually he disappeared altogether from our ken, and we were utterly nonplussed as to what had become of him. This was indeed a very grave and serious responsibility, as no one could surmise from which direction some horrible story of murder and rapine might be sprung upon us. Every officer and man, from the O.C. downwards, did his best to pick up the lost spoor, and despatch-riders were sent to ride day and night to inform the distant settlers and commandants of frontier districts that Te Kooti had been lost, and to earnestly warn them to keep on the lookout for one of his lightning raids, while the hearts of us poor scouts grew dark, as, although we had done all that human beings could do, yet somehow it seemed to ourselves that we were to blame for his miraculous disappearance.

At last it was discovered, after we had marched the boots off our feet, and our riding-breeches were more holey than a cold wet saddle demanded, that Te Kooti had retired into the King Country, where he again, in the most extraordinary way, raised another band of murderous ruffians.

There we could not meddle with him, for to have done so would have been to declare war against the powerful Waikato and Ngatimainapoto tribes, who at that time acknowledged no British rule. Moreover, starvation was again staring us in the face, as some rotter in the Government, having a large number of sheep to dispose of, and wool being at a very low price, suddenly discovered it would be cheaper to feed us on mutton than on beef, so flocks of sheep were despatched up to the front instead of herds of oxen. We should not have page 382objected to the change, but alas, the sheep could not travel up the bush paths or swim rivers like oxen, and the few that did arrive were so long on the journey that we well-nigh starved before they reached us. It. was therefore absolutely necessary to reduce the strength of the field force, so as Kepa at this time received a message from Topia Turoa, the great chief of the Wanganuis, requesting his presence, as he, Topia, had received a letter from the Maori King, which he refused to open except in Kepa's presence, the Colonel sent home the splendid Wanganui warriors, and everyone was awfully keen to hear what news this wonderful letter contained.

In the meantime we starved, but never for a moment relaxed our vigilance or discontinued our scouting and patrols, as McDonnell knew full well that the least slackness on our part would encourage the wily Te Kooti to play us some dog's trick or another. At last we heard the purport of the King's letter to Topia, and as it throws light on some queer phases in old Maori etiquette I will tell you all about it.

The Maoris were the most hospitable people in the world, being bound to defend their guests, as their guests were bound to fight for their hosts. On this occasion, however, Te Kooti was, if not originally, an unwelcome guest, yet had misbehaved himself to such an extent that his Maori Majesty heartily wished to get rid of him, as he feared that he would attract such a following as to enable him, Te Kooti, to set up an opposition kingdom. Nevertheless, although quite strong enough himself to eject the artful dodger from the Waikato, yet page 383the laws of hospitality forbade him to act as his own chucker-out, and he therefore wrote to Topia stating that he, the King, withdrew his protection from Te Kooti and requested Topia to immediately assist Kepa in driving the murderers of women and children from the Waikato. This was nuts to Topia, as he sadly wanted? utu for his old blood relation, Hona, the insignificant old man the Hau Haus had wilfully murdered shortly after they had played old gooseberry with the volunteer troopers at Opepe.

Accordingly on Kepa's arrival Topia sent out the fiery cross, and in two wags of a cat's tail had collected a posse comitatus of six hundred first-class up-to-date fighting men, whom he placed under Kepa's command as war chief, but he accompanied them himself so as to make sure that no monkey tricks would be played or that any of his men should suddenly fancy themselves to be prophets and start dreaming dreams, he, Topia, not believing in such necromancing when the serious business of war was on foot. He likewise warned all hands he would interpret any dreams with his tomahawk, stated that Te Kooti's head was fit to be boiled (an awful cuss word for a Maori chief to use), and that he meant to have utu for the blood of his relative he had never seen. So with Topia, Kepa and six hundred fresh men on their track the Hau Haus did not draw dividends for their brutal murder of a poor old non-combatant whom they had deemed to be a mere nobody, and as such a fit object for their wanton cruelty.

Te Kooti however quickly tumbled to the fact that his game was up in the Waikato, as by one page 384of his lightning marches he turned our right flank, and although he ran great danger in being caught between Topia's men and our column, when he would have been crushed like a nut in a pair of nut-crackers, yet thanks to a dense fog he scraped through between us and got clean away to our rear without our being aware of the fact, and it was only through my cutting his spoor the same evening that we knew of his desperate movement, and that he had made his way to Patatere in the country of the Ngaiterangi, a large portion of which tribe at once joined him.

Now this was one of the most extraordinary facts about this very extraordinary bounder. Here was a man possessed of no blue blood, yet Maoris regard high descent to be an essential in their leaders. Again Maoris have no faith in an unsuccessful general, and it was impossible to argue that he had been successful. True, he had succeeded in three or four raids, in which he had ruthlessly tortured and murdered women and children, yet whenever he had stood up to us in a fair fight, even although he had chosen the battle-field himself, he had been beaten and driven off the ground with a great loss of men. Moreover, he had set himself up as a prophet, and granted a lucky prophet had immense influence over the superstitious natives, yet on the other hand an unlucky prophet met with scant ceremony; in fact on more than one occasion Hau Haus relentlessly killed prophets who had misled them.

Now as a prophet Te Kooti was a distinct failure. He had over and over again declared himself to be invulnerable, yet he had been wounded twice, page 385and on one occasion had had to be carried out of action on a woman's back. Moreover he had promised his followers time after time invulnerability, yet every tribe who joined him had lost heavily in killed and wounded. Now this, was sufficient to have damned a big chief even had he had a previous splendid record; and Te Kooti was no big chiefs while his record previous to his, grantedly unjust, transportation was simply that of a rowdy chicken thief. Nevertheless, notwith-standing all his drawbacks and manifold short-comings, Te Kooti up to the end never visited a tribe that he could not either frighten or persuade numbers of that tribe to join his precarious fortunes, and this without doubt was a marvel, for the Maori is by nature a powerful reasoner and wonderfully clear-headed. Perhaps the most wonderful thing of all was that chiefs of bluest blood who would have pilled him like a shot, had he possessed the effrontery to put himself up for their club, still willingly submitted themselves to his rule and obeyed his commands.

On the 20th of January 1870 Topia's and our column met, and on the 24th our advance patrol surprised and rushed a kainga, in which we killed one Hau Hau and captured three others, who, after putting both themselves and us to a deal of trouble, owned up that they were Te Kooti's scouts, and that Te Kooti himself was camped a few miles away, this being the first authentic information we had received of his actual whereabouts.

Of course the Colonel at once determined to go for him, and Kepa started off with two hundred of his men to get to the wily one's rear, it being page 386arranged that we were to leave camp two hours before daybreak and make the frontal attack. The country we were in was a sinful one, and quite unknown to us. It was chiefly composed of deep pumice-stone ravines with perpendicular sides, and there were so many of them that Tim's query, "Where the divil did the man who dug them hape up the stuff he excavated?" was quite justifiable.

The following morning, just as I was about to leave camp with the scouts, a dense fog came on, so thick that you could have cut chunks out of it with a knife, when of course it was a case of sit tight, as it would have been worse than madness for men ignorant of the locality to attempt to move.

Time passed, the men fell in, and were ordered to lie down at their alarm posts—i.e. in square surrounding the camp—and wait quietly till it was possible to move. Daylight came, but the fog was thicker than ever, the Colonel got vexed, the men did not, as they had been vexed ever since they had rolled up their blankets, still although everyone had profound convictions as to the unsuitability of the weather, none expressed them, for to have done so would have only added to the sulphurous density of the atmosphere.

The sun must have been well up, although no one could see a foot in front of his nose, when to our intense surprise crash came a volley, and a storm of bullets swept over our recumbent force that plainly demonstrated to us that instead of our being the attackers the boot was on the other leg, and that Te Kooti was attacking us.

Now at first sight this move on his part might page 387appear to have been a very considerate one, as it apparently was undertaken so as to save us the trouble of an early and unpleasant march, but the bounder had no such philanthropic motive, for it was in reality a very cute scheme.

Te Kooti had been warned the previous day of our presence, and judging we should start before daylight to beat up his quarters, he had, after dark, altered the position of his own bivouac, and then, by a detour, he had called on ours, expecting to find our camp protected only by a few men whom he hoped to spifflicate, and then capture the reserve ammunition and anything else of value on which he could lay his dirty claws. It was a well-thought-out plan, but the fog coming on as it had done kept us at home, so that instead of his finding a weak camp guard, whom he could easily have destroyed, he found the whole outfit ready and only too willing to entertain him.

Well, rip came his first volley which was followed up by others, while we lay dog-o, as what was the use of firing when we could not even see the flash of his men's rifles to aim at. For some time the above game went on, the Hau Haus occasionally firing a volley, ourselves lying quite silent, hoping that they would charge, and let us get to hand-grips, but this they evidently feared to do, as they were bothered by our silence.

At last the fog cleared, and we saw them, when the Colonel ordered us to fire and charge, which we did, the enemy bolting like redshanks, pursued by Topia and his men, but the old chief, although a fine old duke, was not Kepa, so Te Kooti and his riff-raff, although dispersed, scraped clear with page 388but small loss. They were, however, to suffer in another way by having the tables turned on them in a queer manner.

Kepa, as I before mentioned, had started the night previous to take up a position to the rear of the Hau Hau camp, but hampered by the fog he missed their old camping-ground, and stumbled by chance on to their new one, and, as the sound of the firing at our bivouac warned him what was going on there, he shrewdly guessed Te Kooti's game, and that the Hau Hau main body must be fully occupied. He at once took advantage of the situation by surrounding and rushing Te Kooti's camp, from which he easily drove out or killed the few men left in charge of it, thereby capturing eighty horses and an immense amount of loot. Thus the wily Te Kooti went out to shear, but, thanks to a fog, got shorn himself.

The loss of the horses and loot was a great blow to Te Kooti, who now disappeared again in his usual miraculous way. After days and nights of fatiguing scouting we eventually discovered him with two hundred men at Kuranui, where we at once attacked him. He, however, refusing to fight, broke his men into two parties, the trail of one leading towards Tauranga (Bay of Plenty), the other towards Tapapa. We captured some of his scouts the same day, who informed us that Te Kooti himself was with a party en route to Tauranga.