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Frank Melton's Luck, Or, Off to New Zealand

Chapter XXVII. Scouring the Bush for Wild Cattle—Bushed

Chapter XXVII. Scouring the Bush for Wild Cattle—Bushed.

That a talismanic change came over me as I entered that mighty bush! My turbulent and despondent feelings were suddenly hushed into a quiet calm, as I stepped out of the heat of the day into its cool shade. My troubles were as nought compared with the vastness and infinity of the depths of the forest, into which neither sun nor rain could penetrate with sufficient force to harm us. We trusted in a great measure to the guidance of the Maori and Tim to take us to the ranges on which we hoped to find the mob we sought. We did not come across a single track of anything larger than a pig. The animal which had made them, fell a victim to an intense desire on our part for pork chops for supper. It was time to rest for the night when we came to the place where our dogs had bailed him up, and a bullet from my double barrel took instantaneous effect. Water being handy, we boiled our billy, and broiled the still warm chops by placing them on pointed sticks stuck in the ground and slanting over the fire. After these had been discussed with pannikins of hot tea, we gathered together heaps of tree fern leaves, and placing them between the arched roots of an immense rata tree, made luxurious couches. Our blankets were sewn up in the form of bags, consequently we got into them and lay down. This plan has many advantages. You cannot kick them off, and the mosquitoes cannot get in to torment you when the loose flap is thrown over your head. My comrades were speedily asleep, but I lay awake for some time wishing I could paint the scene before me. The bright rays of the flickering fire in front of us, which we had amply replenished, lit up the huge moss-covered trunks of the trees, the slim saplings, the slender tree fern, and nikau palm, as well as the intricately tangled creepers and vines, and threw grotesque, ever-changing, checkered shadows on to the surface of the page 114 trickling stream, beyond which it seemed to die out in darkness unutterable; it lit up our recumbent forms, the scarlet blankets contrasting vividly with the pale green of the leaves which served us for palliasses, and the light shade of the bark on the curiously-curved, high-reaching roots of the gnarled and distorted old rata, which we utilized as canopies to our respective resting places; it lit up the dense foliage overhead, and the black-and-tan coats of our dogs as they lay curled up round the fire at our feet, content to be with us wherever we were, and to assist us to the best of their ability. I continued to enjoy this pleasing picture till a cloud of mosquitoes found me out—those ‘merry little cusses singing as they toil,’ as Josh Billings aptly describes them. I thereupon covered my head up like my companions, and was soon fast asleep. The efforts of the few little tormentors, who found their way through the small breathing hole I left open, were more than counterbalanced by the fatigue incidental to a day's tramp in the bush. I may here mention an instance explaining a point in which a bushman's faith was deficient. Tim, while getting into his blankets, had, it appears, been considerably molested by these venomous little insects. After giving a slap at his cheek which would have demolished a score, had they been fools enough to have waited for it—which, by-the-bye, they rarely are, unless gorged by a more prolonged feast than their victim is likely to allow them—he gave me his sentiments respecting them in a terse and interrogatory form.

‘Do you b'lieve, sir,’ he inquired, in low and solemn tones, ‘that God ever made skeeters? I don't. I'll b'lieve anything but that; darned if I won't.’

The next morning we breakfasted, rolled up our swags, packed up as much of the pork as would suffice us for the day—we were sure of a further supply for the morrow—and started again on our search, which, on that day, did not prove successful. A nice little porker, plump and fat, was ruthlessly torn from his mother's breast by my dog Rowdy, who had managed to drop on to the family while enjoying a sound nap after their evening meal. As we thought it highly probable that we might come up with the cattle on the next day, we cooked a fair supply of this little gentleman that night, for we should have little time for cooking when we were once fairly on the trail. Our anticipations were fulfilled, for about three o'clock that afternoon, on ascending a sharp spur and getting out into a sort of fern-clad opening in the bush, covering but a few acres, we came across tracks, and ample evidence that the mob we sought were not far from us. They had camped here last night without doubt. The dogs were most anxious to follow up the tracks, but had to be restrained, as it was clear the cattle were heading further back, and until we could succeed in getting round them so as to set them going with their heads turned homewards, we did not wish them disturbed. We therefore followed up the tracks as quietly as we could till we could hear them crashing down the boughs from which they gathered the succulent leaves. Then we took a long detour down the steep gully which bordered the range, to prevent them from suspecting our proximity. When certain that we were fairly round them, we climbed to the top of the ridge again, the Maori carrying a billy of water which he had procured in the gully. By this time it was getting dark, so we again camped page 115 right on the track they would have to traverse if they wished to travel further back. We thought it most likely they would return to their last night's camping ground, but were prepared for either course, and were well pleased to have secured so commanding a position. We took the precaution of watching in turn through the better part of the night, and all turned out at the first streak of dawn. We hastily despatched our morning meal, and each one placed his share of food for two days in his haversack, so that if we were parted, which was not likely, we should not be starved. The Maori, who had not troubled about bringing a blanket, volunteered to carry the rest of the provender, which amounted to very little, as we had left a stock planted in a hollow tree in a central position to fall back on, if necessary. We came on the cattle, lazily stretching themselves as they rose from their sleeping places. The moment they caught sight of us they were off like a whirlwind down the range, crashing everything before them, while the noise of branches breaking, the thud of their hoofs, the bellowing of calves and barking of our dogs, caused a hardly conceivable uproar. They were quickly out of sight, and even hearing, though we followed as speedily as we could. The dogs, after fairly starting them with many admonitory nips in the heel, came back to our call, and had to unwillingly content themselves with trotting along in front of us to guide us as to the course the animals had taken. Now and then we should suddenly catch up to our game again, when a stampede like the first would be the result. By this means we followed them till it was too dark to see the dogs in front of us. We then camped until sufficient light returned in the morning to be at them again.

On the afternoon of the second day's chase I was feeling intensely fatigued, and wished it was halting time. I had lagged somewhat behind my mates, when I heard extraordinary shouting and yelling, and the barking of dogs. I hurried on, but found they had disappeared, and, worse luck, my dog with them. Still, I had no fear but that I should soon pick them up, so I progressed as fast as my tired limbs would allow me in the direction—as I imagined—from which I had heard the shouting. I could not track them, as the ground was hard and dry about the part of bush in which I now was. After walking for a long time, I appeared to get no nearer to either men or cattle, so I sat down to consider what was best to be done. I was evidently lost, for I guessed that, when they rushed on so frantically, they must have got the cattle out in the open, and would be obliged to drive them safe home, by which time it would be too dark to return to look me up. I knew they would search the first thing in the morning, supposing that I did not succeed in extricating myself before that time, which was now impossible, as darkness had set in. Now, to camp out with companions is a pleasant change, but passing a night by one's self in the midst of a dense bush is a very different thing, especially when one has the unpleasant consciousness that one is lost. And now I bitterly repented my carelessness in leaving my compass at home. With such guides as Tim and the Maori, I had not thought it at all necessary. To make matters worse, the latter had borrowed my match-box to light his pipe, and had forgotten to return it. I tried the method said to be adopted by savage races of rubbing two sticks together, but though it made me savage enough to have page 116 succeeded, yet I got much hotter than the sticks, which remained provokingly cool. No fire meant no tea. I must be content with a biscuit and bit of cold pork which I had inserted in the folds of my blanket at lunch-time, as my haversack had caught in a brooken branch when hurrying through the scrub, and been rendered useless. Alas! my comestibles were now here to be found! Master Rowdy, whom I had allowed to recline on my swag afterwards to teach him, as I explained to Charlie, to guard my property, must have vilely betrayed the trust I imposed in him, and surreptitiously nosed it out. Well, I had yet one other resource. I could browse on the hearts of the most easily-reached nikau palms, and this I did. They have a pleasant flavour, but are far from satisfying to a hungry man. I then crept into my blanket, coiled myself up, and slept very fairly until I was awakened by the angry snort of an immense grizzly old boar, who, as there was no fire to frighten him off, had ventured to examine closely my personal appearance. On my jumping up quickly, he crashed his ugly tusks together with an ominous sound, and bolted more frightened than I was. I did not, how-however, manage to compose myself to sleep again. A drizzly rain had set in, which rendered it the more awkward, as, had it been a bright sunlight morning, I felt very certain that I could have steered my course out. This I might easily have done the afternoon before, but this guide to the lost bushman was even then obscured with thick clouds. Had I now remained where I was, I should have been much more speedily found, but after again endeavouring to satisfy my hunger in the same manner as on the preceeding evening, I started in what I deemed must be the right direction, and wandered on for a considerable time, when, to my utter astonishment, I found myself back again at the despoiled nikau palms. As is usual with the lost, I had been travelling in a circle. At frequent intervals ever since I had missed my companions I had coo-eyed loudly for assistance. I deeply regretted now that the Maori, seeing I was fagged, had good-naturedly taken my gun to carry. I was thus prevented from using it as a signal.

I took a short rest, then gave another prolonged coo-ey. Was that an echo or an answer? An answer I felt convinced. I tried another; this time there was no response. It must have been an answer. An echo would not confine itself to one sound. I again tried, but with the same result. I grew frightened that they had not heard me, but were calling on the chance of my hearing them. I now narrowly escaped splitting myself with my strenuous efforts to send my voice far enough to be heard. Again no response. They cannot have heard me. I shall have to spend perhaps three or four days, if this dull weather continues, eating nikau and describing circles of greater or less magnitude according to whether I increase or relax my efforts at keeping straight. I threw myself down on the ground, cursing the ill-luck which seemed to dog my footsteps unceasingly, forgetting that I should rather have cursed my carelessness in not having brought my compass. Suddenly I heard a rustling through the bushes. The start it occasioned showed me into what a nervous state my mishap had thrown me. Conceive my delight when old Rowdy came bounding up to me. ‘Dear old dog,’ I said, ‘so you have found your master. You are a sagacious animal. Now you will show me the way out, won't you? I'll be page 117 able to take the shine out of Charlie in dog stories now. He always called you a stupid brute, but won't again, will he?’

‘Talk of the old gentleman and he is sure to appear,’ they say. I found it also applied to young ones, for at this moment Charlie and Tim marched up. The latter immediately handed me a flask containing some tea pretty stiffly laced with brandy, and also a few sandwiches. ‘Here, old boy, take a nip, for I guess you want it.’

I caught Charlie's hand and shook it till he begged me to desist. I then betook myself to the refreshments with energy, and asked him how far we were from home? should we get there to-night?’

‘To-night, you old duffer! why, we'll be out of the bush in an hour. We heard your coo-ey from the house early this morning. The wind was just right. If you had stayed where you were we could have had you home to breakfast.’

‘I know I ought to have remained on the spot, but I was so disgusted at getting lost that I thought I would get out at all hazards, but only got further in. But didn't you hear me coo-ey last night?’

‘Yes, but it was first here, and then there. We were so puzzled we couldn't strike you at all. We were out a good while after you with lanterns, but I knew it would be no good. Next time you get bushed stick to the spot till some one comes to find you, for you are an awful duffer in the bush, Frank, and would never find yourself; that's a fact.’

I was obliged to own to this, as I knew it was a true bill.

‘Don't you run down Rowdy again, Charlie,’ I exclaimed. ‘Dear old fellow, fancy him following my track and leading you to me!’

Rowdy lead us to you? Not much! Why, I couldn't get the stupid brnte to hunt you at all till we were almost up to you, when he heard your last coo-ey and rushed on ahead. We just followed your shouts, but they led us a pretty dance.’