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Legends of the Maori

Chapter II

Chapter II.

There is a spurious variety of the digger species who takes it out of his fellow miners occasionally as badly as a London syndicate—the fictitious prospector for alluvial fields. He will go for a month or two into the bush, and having found the smallest prospect, will return to some large mining camp, and report the discovery of a new field, with the object of getting up a rush of men, which he hopes will discover the rich gold he had failed to locate; then he will peg out a claim, perhaps as prospector. About the time we left Erana on the Dunstan, one evening two men sat outside a tent on the southern bank of the Dart River, where that stream empties into Lake Wakatipu. They could not go west, they had no food to take them where none was to be had; they could not approach the settlements, for the river and lake stopped them. A canoe was in sight on the opposite side of the swollen Dart, the side of succour; but neither could swim. Many days before, their mate Broughton had ferried himself over on his way to Queens-town to fetch food; and he had left with his mates ten pannikins of oatmeal—nothing more, and no game to be had. The three of them had been as many months away, prospecting up the Dart, and in the country towards the West Coast. They had found fair prospects—nothing worth reporting. It was agreed to prospect farther, and Broughton was to fetch food quickly, and with every secrecy. This point his mates insisted on. A day or two after his departure Dromore broke a small bone in his foot, and was thus disabled; and this evening McCaul was saying that on the morrow he would go far up the stream, find a fordable spot, cross over and forage for the weka, the Maori hens that they could hear opposite. This he did, and he had saluted his mate with a cooee from the other shore, and then Dromore, together with the rest of the world, lost sight of McCaul for ever.

Queenstown at this time was as gay a digging township as any in New Zealand, and no flash digger in it was gayer than Broughton. He had exhibited gold, in nuggets and quartz; he talked of reefs and alluvial in the country between the Lake and the West Coast, till he was surrounded by admiring friends day and night. In the tallest of Yankee hats, the snowiest of moleskins, with crimson sash, and knee boots with “nugget” embossed in gold letters in front, he mashed the barmaids and dancing girls, and responded to invitations to drink from all and sundry. Days grew into weeks, and yet he gave no thought to his mates, who, foodless, had their path to safety blocked by the swollen Dart, rushing turbid to the lake. At last he page 207 moved, and with him went a great crowd of men, eager to reach the new El Dorado.

Dromore had long ago eaten his last spoonful of meal, and had bidden farewell to hope, as day followed day, and the mate he knew to be faithful, in spite of the defection of the other, returned not to his side. At last he abandoned the tent, and crawled to the brink of the river, and then consciousness forsook him.

As the twenty-ninth evening from the time of Broughton’s departure was deepening into night, the helpless figure of Dromore was sitting by the river with knees up and hands upon them, in the palms of which his face was buried, in an instinctive attempt to shut out the swarms of sandflies, and check the operations of a horrid hoard of carrion-seeking flies. The loathsome hum and buzz of the flies were the only sounds which broke the stillness of desolation.

The serrated range of lofty Alps over the lake to the eastward was yielding to the coming night the white purity of its peaks, and the icy summit only of giant Earnslaw was blushing rosy red, as the last rays of the departing sun struck its eternal snows, when loud reports of guns, and lusty shouts of men broke the insect-haunted stillness, and betokened that at last succour had come to the dead McCaul and the moribund Dromore. The newcomers searched the tent, but found no occupants, but Dromore was shortly afterwards discovered on the river brink. The life spark still feebly fluttered, and soon many billies were boiled. The warm water helped to restore animation, and duck soup was sparingly poured down his throat. All search failed to find McCaul, but next day, on the top of a precipitous rocky gulch, the atmosphere was tainted with the odour of decaying flesh, and on looking down, far out of reach from below or above, buzzard hawks were seen as they wheeled in heavy flight, and seagulls, as they circled near a ledge of rock, screamed the dirge of the wandering Irishman.

Broughton disappeared on the first sight of Dromore. He knew that he would receive but short shrift should the diggers discover (and the sight of Dromore was discovery) that he had left his mates to starve whilst he was enjoying himself in Queenstown. Whilst there, he had never hinted that they were in want—he had confined himself to painting in glowing colours the imaginary gold—nor even lightly sketched the miserable setting to the picture. Only when they were all leaving did he hint that it would be well to hurry as the tucker might be run out. He knew his danger, but he knew not where to go. He must avoid Queenstown, but he might make his way to the Arrow or the Cardrona. But when he came to think of it, he recognised that he would be safe in no digging centre of the province when the news got abroad of the fearful state of Dromore and the death of page 208 McCaul. He determined finally to get out of the country. He had his blankets on his shoulders, and started east on his way to Dunedin.