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The Adventures of Kimble Bent

Chapter IX — A Forest Adventure

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Chapter IX
A Forest Adventure

The two eel-fishers—Bivouac in the bush—A murderous attack—The Waikato's tomahawk—“Ringiringi's” escape.

Far away to the east and north of the great Hauhau council-camp stretched the forest, clothing hill and valley with one endless wavy garment of unvarying green. For weeks one might tramp through these vast, jungly woods and not see or hear sign of man, or of any living thing but the twittering birds in the tree-tops and a stray wild pig rooting in the soft, fern-matted earth or scampering away through the thickets. The free, unspoiled wilderness of Tane-Mahuta.

Climbing to the wooded crest of some of the steep little hills that rose from the gently undulating plain, one might here and there, through the gaps between the towering tiers of foliage, catch narrow glimpses of the surrounding country; and perhaps far away to the nor'-west see between the branches, set like a picture in its forest-frame, the pure white snowcone of tent-shaped Taranaki.

Deep in these bush solitudes one day, when the page 93 spring had come, the voice of man broke upon the silences. The wild boar stopped his root-foraging to listen, and then turned and crashed off through the supplejacks. A band of brown men, some clad in nondescript articles of European clothing, some wearing only a shoulder-cape of flax and a shawl or blanket-kilt, wound in single file through the bush, striking due east. There were fourteen or fifteen of them. Most of them carried weapons—double-barrelled guns and short-handled tomahawks, stuck in the waist-belt of flax; all had large flax baskets, some containing gourd-calabashes, strapped across their backs. Some sang little lilts of Maori song, and some called now and then to the others, or mimicked the tui and the kaka parrot that cried above them in the trees.

Mid-line in the file was a fairer-skinned young forester, bare-footed like the rest, clad only in a “home-made” shirt that seemed to have been cut out of a blanket and a coloured shawl strapped round his waist. He had a thick beard, and his hair was so long that it would have fallen down over his shoulders had it not been caught at the back of his neck and tied with a piece of flax. This was “Ringiringi,” the pakeha-Maori, wearing as little clothing as his Hauhau companions, and to all appearance as seasoned a bushman as they, as he bent along the jungly way with the easy, noiseless jog of the Maori scout.

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This party had been despatched from Taiporohenui by Rupé, to work inland through the bush to the upper waters of the Patea River, and scour the country for food supplies for the assembled tribes. They were ordered to bring home wild pork and wild honey, and to catch as many eels as they could carry. They travelled far into the heart of the bush, and then divided into small parties of twos and threes for eel-catching in the creeks.

The white man's companion on the eel-fishing excursion was an old Maori from the “King” Country, a Ngati-Maniapoto man, who had joined the Taranaki Hauhaus; he was a short but strongly built fellow, with a big head and of dark and sullen visage, made more forbidding still by the blue-black tattoo with which cheeks and brow and nose were scrolled and lined. The couple, leaving the others after arranging a general rendezvous for the following day, selected a small creek, winding in a slow, brown current beneath the roof of verdure which the outstretching branches of the rata and the pines nearly everywhere held over it. It was a tributary of the Upper Patea above Rukumoana. They fished with short rods and flax lines, with worms for bait, and by the evening had caught between them about sixty good-sized eels.

The eel-fishers bivouacked where the twilight found them, in a tiny nook near Orangimura, where there was just room to build their camp-fire and page 95 spread their bush-couches of fresh-pulled tree-fern fronds, between the buttressed ratas and the creekside.

“Ringiringi” had a little cold food in his pikau kit, potatoes and kopaki corn; that is, maize in the sheath. He was about to grill some of the fat eels on the fire when his Maori companion stopped him.

E tama!” he said. “Don't you know it is unlucky to cook the tuna in the night-time? Do not touch those eels until the morning; should you disobey, it will surely bring heavy rain.”

The superstitious old warrior was so insistent that “Ringiringi,” to please him, agreed to his wishes; he contented himself with the little he had in his kit, and then, filling his pipe with torori tobacco, lit it, and smoked as he lay beside the camp-fire. His Maori mate squatted smoking on the other side.

The warmth of the fire, and the low, murmurous singing of the little river—the wawara-wai, the babble of the waters, in the musical Maori tongue—pleasantly lulled the tired pakeha. He lay there, with his scanty bush-ranging garments wrapped about him, listening, half-asleep, to the lazy run of the creek, and to the songs that his savage old com-panion recited to himself in a monotonous chant. War-songs of Waikato, songs that he and his Kingite comrades had shouted in many an armed camp before the white man drove them out beyond the Aukati line, the frontier of the Waikato. In one page 96 of these chants the eel-fisher's voice was lifted in a quick burst of passionate remembrance—a defiant haka-song the Hauhaus of Taranaki, too, had adopted as a composition exactly expressing their opinion of pakehas in general, and of the pakeha Governor in particular. It likened Governor Grey to a bush-bullock devouring the tender leaves of the raurekau shrub—a Maori simile for the landhunger of the whites:

A he kau ra.
He kau ra!
He kau kawana koe
Kia miti mai
Te raurekau.
A he kau ra,
He kau ra!

(“Ha! A beast art thou,
A beast that bellows—
A beast art thou, O Governor,
That lickest in
The leaves of the raurekau.
Ho! A beast, indeed,
A beast art thou!

The old Hauhau, warming to the haka, almost yelled the virulent words. The chant broke the white man's drowsing, and he sat up and listened as his companion repeated the vigorous dancesong.

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“Well, pakeha!” he said; “that is our Waikato ngeri, our war-cry. That is what we think of the Governor—and of all pakehas! I hate all white men! They are thieves and pigs. I could cook and eat them all! All, every one! I would not leave a white-skin alive in this island! They are slaves, taurekarekas—like you! Now go to sleep, for we must rise when the kaka cries,”

And the old man curled up by the fire, while “Ringiringi” found uncomfortable reflection in the fact that he was here alone, far in the heart of the forest, with a murderous old savage who was armed with a war-tomahawk, while he, the weaker man, though the younger, had nothing with which to defend himself. But by this time he was familiar with the face of danger, and worked and slept in the midst of alarms; so simply remarking to the Maori, “Friend, I am sleepy,” and throwing some fresh fuel on the fire, he lay down again on his ferny whariki.

However, he had his suspicions of the old savage, and presently he glimpsed the Maori eyeing him dangerously through his narrowed lids and handling his tomahawk restlessly. When he lay down to rest, the white man had drawn his blanket partly over his face, as if he were asleep, but he kept one eye lifting. Once the Maori half rose and looked cunningly over at his companion, with his hand on his war-axe, then he sank down again.

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The little dark brook went singing on beneath the forest; the fire gradually burned lower and lower as the night wore on; the morepork now and then cried his sharp complaint of “Kou-kou!” from the shadows. The two fishers lay silent; to all appearance both were asleep. But in the Maori's heart was black, treacherous murder.

Utu—payment, satisfaction, revenge—summed up in a word the darker side of the Maori character.

The lone pakeha's head would be indeed a trophy to bear back through the wilderness to his tribe. He would be a hero; he could brag to the end of his days how he slew a white soldier in single combat, and none could contradict him. He saw himself already taki-ing and prancing up and down the home marae before his admiring clan, the pakeha's head in his hand, his tomahawk—the victor's tomahawk!—flashing in air. Ah! That, indeed, would be utu—though long-deferred utu—for his kinsmen who fell to the pakeha bullets at Rangiriri and Orakau!

It must have been nearly midnight, and “Ringiringi” was half-asleep with fatigue, in spite of his fears, when suddenly all his senses were awakened. Through his half closed eyelids he saw the Maori rise, tomahawk in hand; he rose from his blanket noiselessly, then cautiously stretched one foot across a tawa log that lay on the fire, with its end projecting. His eyes blazed, his face was frightful, with intent to murder plain upon it in the firelight.

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He was just in the act of stepping over the log, with his little axe upraised, when the white man suddenly threw off his blanket and leaped for the savage.

The old fellow flew at him with his upraised tomahawk glittering in the little light that the bivouacfire yet threw out.

But “Ringiringi” was too quick for him. He ducked dexterously, and caught the Maori by the ankle, and, with a lightning twist that he had learned from his Taranaki people, threw him to the ground.

The murderer-in-intent fell on his back and almost on the fire, and the tomahawk dropped from his hand.

“Ringiringi” pounced on the furious old savage as he fell, and with a knee on his bare chest, and one hand on his throat, reached out with the free hand for the tomahawk, which lay just within his grasp.

The Maori would have continued the struggle, and in the rough-and-tumble would probably have got the better of the white man, had not “Ringiringi,” now roused to murderous mood himself, threatened to split his head in two if he moved, and emphasised his words by bringing the weapon down until the blade was within an inch of the old fellow's ugly, tattooed nose.

The Maori sulkily promising to lie quietly in his sleeping-place for the rest of the night, the pakeha relinquished his grip of the old man and backed to page 100 his own side of the bivouac. He fed the fire with dry branches of pine, and presently the little glade was a blaze of light again, and the black treeshadows danced like forest-ghosts to the rising and falling of the flames.

The old Maori pulled his blanket over his face and pretended to go to sleep, but “Ringiringi” did not take his eyes off him the rest of that night. He sat by the fire till daylight, the captured tomahawk between his knees.

In the morning the two enemies silently packed their takes of eels in their kits, and slung them on their backs by flax-leaf straps, for the home-journey.

The little river had to be forded. It was about knee-deep. The Maori hung back, waiting for Bent to cross first; but the white man knew that if he did so his enemy would spring upon him or trip him up and try to drown him in the creek.

“Now, you go first,” ordered Bent, when he had settled his pikau on his shoulders and stood, tomahawk in hand, facing the Maori, “and walk in front of me all the way home, or I'll kill you!”

So the old fellow sulkily stepped into the stream and waded across, Bent following him, and in this order they travelled.

So they made their way homewards, striking west through the pathless forest, wading watercourses and climbing and descending hills, until they emerged on the fern country. “Ringiringi,” immensely re- page 101 lieved and weary beyond words, reported himself to his chief.

Rupé was furiously angry when he heard the story of the Waikato's attack on his pakeha.

“The kohuru!” he cried, as he leaped to his feet.

“The murderer! I shall slay him this instant, on the marae, though all Waikato come down to avenge him!” And seizing an axe from the wall, he ran out in chase of “Ringiringi's” night antagonist.

The old fellow, when the chief rushed out at him like a madman, turned and fled from the village, and ran for his life until he disappeared in the shelter of the bush. Rupé did not pursue him far; his fit of anger was soon spent, and he returned to his wharé, and made his white man relate again, with Maori wealth of detail, the story of the eel-fishing bivouac.

“Ringiringi's” would-be slayer was never heard of again; at any rate, he did not venture back to the camp of the Hauhaus; and whether he ever succeeded in taking a pakeha head in settlement of his utu bill no man knows.