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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Midnight Warning

page 151

The Midnight Warning

IF you have lived or travelled much in open fern country you will know how the native bracken when trodden down short by stock and lying close to the soil like a great springy carpet, acts as a kind of sounding-board. On a still night, man or beast passing rapidly over this ferny ground can be heard a considerable distance off, just as in the Thermal Country, where the pumice soil is particularly susceptible to sound-waves, and is set all a-quiver by movements on its surface that would have little effect on more solid ground.

That was why the sound of a runner travelled far through the quiet midnight on the banks of the Waitotara, and reached the half-asleep ears of a white man lying in his bunk in a thatched hut. A brown figure sped down the long fern slopes on the northern side of that dark, winding stream, running as if for life. Issues of life and death did, indeed, hang upon his fleetness. He was a Maori, a short, solidly-set fellow, barefooted and bareheaded. He ran hard, and the regular pat-pat-pat of his feet sounded like the beat of some machine that softly-breathing night. As he neared the valley through which the Waitotara crept in murky twistings, he stopped for a moment and looked back and listened. In the distance lights glittered from a native village, and the sound of angry voices came down on the night air, and then a sudden thud-thud, as from a body of running men.

The Maori instantly leaped on again and bounded down the slope towards the hut, a whare of raupo page 152 thatch that stood on the little flat, on the edge of a patch of ploughed ground. The white man was up and at the door just as the Maori charged down to the hut.

“Who the devil's that?” he called, in an alarmed, angry voice.

“Haere! Haere!” cried the Maori. “Up and run for your lives. Run now, quick, or you'll be tomahawked! The Hauhaus are just behind me! No time for your clothes—run, run! Titokowaru's men are nearly here!”

There were four other white men in the house sleeping on bunks ranged along the walls in a double row, ship fashion. They were out of their blankets in an instant, and out they rushed, clad only in their shirts, snatching up what garments they could as they ran.

The dogs were barking furiously, and just over the hill-brow the first of the runners appeared. The white men, followed by the Maori—who had his blanket under his arm—ran round the side of the hut and across a patch of ploughed ground at the back, making for a belt of bush that rose like a black wall ahead of them, indicating the Waitotara's banks. They heard the yells of the Hauhaus behind them, and for a few dreadful moments thought they were seen and that all was over with them. But it was the shouts the savages raised when they caught sight of the settlers' whare. They thundered down the hill, a solid body of them, forty or fifty strong, their tomahawks and guns glittering in the moonlight, and into the thatched hut they charged, just as the Maori runner had rushed a minute or two before them.

“Quick, quick, get into the bush!” said the man who had saved the sleepers. “No time to look behind!”

page 153

There was a lagoon in front of them, a backwater of the Waitotara, which was flooded by recent rains. Into this and through it the six of them splashed, each of the white man expecting every moment to feel a tomahawk crashing through his skull. Through the reeds they pushed and scrambled, and then the friendly bush received them.

Just before they threw themselves into its gloom a sudden weather change came on. Thunder clouds hid the moon, and a sharp shower of rain fell. This, no doubt, helped to save their lives that night. Into the bush they tore, until in a few moments they had passed through the jungly timber-belt and stood on the banks of the sucking current of the Waitotara. But not all together. The fugitives had separated. The three whose further adventures we will follow crouched on the bank alongside each other—Charles Durie, William Lingard, and a lad named O'Neill. The other two whites, a Constabulary man whose name is forgotten, and a man whose name, like the lad's, was O'Neill, took a slightly different direction from the others, and although all reached the river-bank, the two parties saw no more of each other that night, for they were afraid to call to each other or make the slightest sound, lest their enemies should hear. As for the faithful Maori who had warned them, he was off back to his kainga, keeping away from the settlers' hut, for it was crammed with the loot-hunting Hauhaus.

This Maori, whose midnight run had saved them from the tomahawk, was little Timoti, of Ihupuku, who had crept out through a hole in the rear wall of the meeting-house when the Hauhau war-party entered and announced page 154 that they were after the white men down at the river. The Hauhaus had already captured two white settlers on the opposite side of the Waitotara. They were the two whose adventures have just been described in the last story. But although Timoti's sprint was the immediate salvation of the five whites camped there, it was the good old chief Pirimona whom the pakehas had to thank in the first place for their escape. Pirimona had been in Wanganui town, where in some mysterious way, known only to the Maoris, rumours had reached him of the projected raid. He rode back to his kainga as hard as his horse would carry him, but the Hauhaus from Oika and Papatupu were in possession. He made a sign to Timoti, as he sat in the meeting-house, and the quick-witted and fleet-legged runner did the rest.

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Durie and Lingard and the lad O'Neill crouched shivering on the muddy banks of the Waitotara. It was a cold night, and they were very scantily clad, just as they had jumped from their bunks, with what garments they could snatch as they ran out—one had a coat, another someone else's trousers. They were scratched and torn and bleeding; and their bare feet were lacerated by the sharp stumps and infernal hooks of the bush-lawyer. They spoke in whispers, wondering by what miracle their lives had been preserved so far. Then Durie remembered that only that day they had got in six months' supplies of provisions from Wanganui, including a keg of rum. No doubt, when Big Kereopa and his painted war party rushed into the whare that keg of rum presented irresistible attractions. At any rate, page 155 they stayed to tap it. Lingard and Durie, when first aroused, had had some swift thought of defending themselves, but instantly abandoned it, for all the weapons they had in the whare were two or three double-barrel shotguns, and what use would they be against a horde of well-armed and practised fighting men?

The three of them huddled there on the river-bank, wondering how they could cross the deep and flooded river. Presently they heard voices on the water and the splash of paddles. The Hauhaus had taken to their canoes and were paddling up and down hunting for signs of the pakehas on the bank. Durie and his companions crept beneath a great bush of prickly lawyer, and there they remained through that horrible night.

Daylight came and found them there, half-dead with the cold and the damp. They dragged their stiffened limbs to the river-side, and peered out for traces of the Hauhaus. The raiders, however, had paddled off home up the river. Cautiously emerging from the bush, the three fugitives anxiously scoured the foggy river-side and the ferny hills for signs of their pursuers. They did not dare to venture back to their whare, which, for all they knew, was still in possession of the enemy. They decided to make for the Weraroa Redoubt—a difficult and dangerous enough task, for it lay on the other side of the river, and they had to cross a country now infested by their foes.

On their hands and knees the bruised and bleeding trio crawled over the open ground, fearing every moment to hear a Hauhau shout proclaiming their discovery. In such fashion they crawled across the clearing page 156 almost on the present site of the Waitotara township. When they had skirted the river-bank some distance, wondering how they should all cross—Durie could not swim—they spied a small canoe moored on the opposite side. The lad O'Neill dropped into the water and swam across to the canoe, which he paddled back to his comrades. Thus they all crossed the Waitotara safely, but their perils were not yet over. A Hauhau village lay directly between them and the redoubt; it was so situated that they must pass through its outskirts. To their great relief it was quite deserted.

Now came the steep Weraroa Hill. The fugitives' feet were so cut and sore that they could scarcely walk. But they reached the top somehow, and there before them was the redoubt, with its parapets and its flag-staff and its friendly smoke—a joyful sight after the toils and dangers of that flight. Lame and exhausted, with their legs and hands and faces blood-covered, they staggered into the camp. And as they reached it the first man they met was their friend Pirimona, who had been on the look-out for them since daylight. He rushed up and warmly shook their hands, and almost embraced them in his delight at seeing them alive. The Hauhaus, he said, had seized him the previous night and prevented him warning them of their impending fate, but he had despatched Timoti, and had heard of his friends' marvellous escape from their hut.

All the Waitotara settlers made the redoubt that morning; all had escaped Hauhau bullet and tomahawk. And now, as soon as they were fed and clothed again, they planned to return to their stations, although the north page 157 side of the river was all in the hands of the rebels, and save their cattle and sheep from the Hauhau stomachs. How they succeeded in that daring exploit and drove off their stock, almost from under the very guns of Titokowaru's warriors, will make a story for another day.