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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Last Cartridge — A Memory of the Whakatane Valley

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The Last Cartridge
A Memory of the Whakatane Valley

PLAIN and ranges quivered in the heat of summer when I heard this story of Heketoro's escape and his wonderful leap down the scarps of Cabbage-Tree Hill. The steep outline of the little mountain trembled in the sun dazzle; the trees on its sides and top, like pencils with fuzzy heads, danced in the midday shimmer. The Maori calls that heat-wave dance the haka of Hine-Raumati. Two shining rivers drew a half-loop about the farms at the hill foot; the Waimana, liberated from its mountain gorge, made junction with the Whakatane; just to the north was the township of Taneatua. To the south the Urewera mountains rose in a long notched wall, blue, enchanted, beckoning. Puketi is the Maori name of this Cabbage-Tree Hill. It is boldly cut, somewhat like Auckland's volcanic cone Mount Wellington in shape, but much smaller, and with a more flattened top. Its carved slopes and terraces are softened with fern and flax and tupakihi bushes. It was the ancient Tini-o-Toi who populated these valleys, and scarped and trenched these hill-castles. To-day their descendants, the Tuhoe or Urewera, live in the upper part of the valley. In the lower parts, between Taneatua and Whakatane Harbour, the Ngati-Pukeko tribe have their villages and farms. The two tribes were opposed in politics. The Urewera were all Hauhaus.

One morning towards the end of 1868 three Maoris of the fortified village of Rauporoa, on the west bank of page 164 the Whakatane, four miles from the harbour, rode up towards the Waimana Gorge, searching for strayed horses. They spent most of the day rounding up horses on the plain. One of the party was Heketoro, an old chief of the Ngati-Pukeko. Tall, lean to gauntness, powerful in spite of his nearly seventy years, he was the perfect bush scout and warrior. One of his companions was Te Whakaunua, a man of the Urewera, living with the Ngati-Pukeko, to whom his wife belonged. The third of the party was a young lad from Rauporoa. Heketoro alone was armed; though there was temporary peace in the valley he seldom went abroad without gun or tomahawk, or both. His weapon was a single-barrel gun, for which he had only three cartridges.

The three horse hunters gathered up some strays from the levels and worked them up toward Puketi. A winding track led steeply to the flat summit of the hill; by this track they drove the small mob up to the top and there, blocking the only easy exit, they caught the horses they wanted and tethered them to the bushes. As there was no water there, they descended to the bank of the Waimana River, where they cooked and ate their evening meal, then climbed the hill again to spend the night there.

The horse hunters' doings had not escaped the sharp eyes of the Maoris living in the villages south of the river junction. These Hauhaus, of the Urewera, were the owners of the upper valley, and Puketi was just within their territory. Heketoro, in strict fact, was a trespasser; but he relied on his Tuhoe companion Te Whakaunua's presence, and the horses belonged to Ngati-Pukeko. The Hauhaus quickly prepared to spring page 165 a surprise on the three. They did not know who the horse seekers were except that they came from the enemy camp, for Ngati-Pukeko were all friendly to the pakeha Government. A party of some forty men quickly armed, and, led by the chief Rapaira, of Ruatoki, they marched on Puketi; they could see the horsemen moving about the summit.

In the dusk of the evening the Urewera stealthily surrounded the hill pa. Rapaira so disposed his men as to catch the horse hunters in a trap. Peering out from the bushes of the overgrown trenches in which they had taken cover, the Hauhaus saw their intended victims ascending the hill, and felt certain that the three were within their grasp.

Suddenly the little party disappeared from the view of their foes. The Ruatoki warriors could see nothing more of them, and they were compelled now to wait until morning.

Heketoro and his companions, unsuspicious of danger, had simply descended into one of the large circular ruas or dug-in storehouses for potatoes and kumara, near the summit of the pa, on a terrace just below the topmost scarp. This food pit, with its comparatively small mouth and hollowed-out interior, was screened by the fern and made a dry and sufficiently roomy shelter for the three tired men.

In the early morning Heketoro was aroused from sleep by some earth falling on him from above. Instantly all his senses were on the alert. He could dimly see in the first faint light of dawn dark faces staring down into the gloom of the rua. Then he heard a voice:

“Who are you down there?”

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Heketoro silently grasped his gun in his left hand and felt in his pocket with his right for a percussion cap. He remembered that his gun was loaded. Cautiously he put the cap on the nipple.

It was Te Whakaunua who answered the question. “It is I, Te Whakaunua,” he said.

“Come up out of that,” was the command. Heketoro knew what that meant. His Urewera companion would be saved; he and the lad from Rauporoa would be sacrificed.

Te Whakaunua was pulled out of the potato pit by the Ruatoki men, and his two comrades followed. They found themselves surrounded by a savage band. Eyes glared hatred, murder; weapons were raised. A few moments more would have seen the end of Heketoro.

But the old warrior's quick eyes had seen a possible way of escape. On the north side of the pa there was a narrow opening which was not filled by a foeman. It was the way to the edge of the terrace, where there was a quick drop down to the lower slopes and the bank of the Waimana River. Te Whakaunua was safe, and therefore Heketoro had only himself and his young kinsman to consider.

“To the river!” he whispered. In a flash the lad had darted through the cordon and down over the steep escarpment into the brushwood. Heketoro was close behind him, but at the sudden fall of the bank he whirled about, dropped on one knee, and fired at the men bounding after him. The leader was the chief Rapaira. Heketoro's bullet penetrated his stomach and entered the chest of the man immediately behind him, mortally wounding both.

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In a lightning bound the old hero was over the edge of the scarped hill, his gun held high as he leaped. It was a drop of more than twenty feet, but Heketoro landed lightly as a deer in the fern that broke his fall. Another astonishing bound and he was far down the hillside.

A thunder of shots followed him. Bullets sang over his head. He went on towards the river, leaping from side to side to escape a hit. The young fellow was waiting for him at the river bank.

They dashed in together. The water was shallow but running swiftly. Some of the pursuers were close, and they forded the river under a hot fire.

A bullet, one of those smashing round balls weighing an ounce or more, broke one of the lad's arms. Next moment Heketoro was shot in the thigh. A bad wound, bleeding greatly. But he reloaded and capped his gun while he was wading the water. In scrambling out and up the ferny bank he lost his only spare cartridge. The solitary charge left was that in his gun.

Taking cover in the bushes on the bank, Heketoro coolly waited until his pursuers were close enough to give him a target he could not miss. The foremost man was more than half-way across the river when the old man fired. The Hauhau fell, shot through the chest. He disappeared in the swirling water. That last shot stopped the pursuit. The enemy lost sight of the plucky two, and feared an ambush.

The pair now separated. The lad, suffering his agony in silence, was told to travel as quickly as he could down the valley to Rauporoa and give the alarm. Heketoro, binding up his wound with a piece of his shirt, page 168 crept along towards the west, leaving a trail of blood plain enough to any foe that might follow him up. He came to the Whakatane River; the cool water some-what eased the intense pain of his wound. Half wading, half swimming, he went with the current, keeping close under the flax-bordered bank.

In this way he came at last to the waterside village at Rauporoa, just as a party of armed men was about to set out to his rescue. His young comrade had struggled in only a little while before him.

A half-dead but happy warrior was old Heketoro. A bag of three, with two bullets, was a satisfying morning's work. The horses?—let the Hauhaus have them and welcome. Many horses would not wipe out for them the annoying memory of their surprise party that failed on Puketi.