Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life
Chapter X. — Mike's Shepherding
"Where are ye, pastoral pretty sheep,
That wont to bleat and frisk and leap
Beside your woolly dams?"
"I have not been long in looking you up, old man," said Arthur Leslie, pulling up one morning at the yards where Gilbert and Dougal M'Lean were at work with some sheep.
"I am not the less glad to see you," replied Gilbert, "but I can't leave this for a bit. You'll find an empty stall in the stable over there, and by dinner-time Dougal and I will be finished with our work; so if you go down to the house and make yourself at home, I'll be down by and by."
"All right," said Arthur, moving off; but instead of going to the house after putting up his horse, he returned to the yards, and seating himself on the top rail, stayed chatting and smoking till Gilbert was ready to go down to the house.
"I am a gentleman at large for the present," said Arthur, as they walked towards the house. page 142"I had a little difference of opinion with old Lambton, and that led us to agree in the opinion that the time had arrived when we should part. I went and missed the coach from Muttontown, and as I did not see through tramping it, I waited till next day, and got a lift in a waggon. That mode of travelling made me a couple of days later in getting back to Big Creek than I should have been, and the old man was jumping. He sacked me right off."
"Mr. Ramshorn is away, so I can't do anything for you here," said Gilbert; "but if you stop till he comes back, I think, perhaps, he might be able to give you a job for a bit."
"Oh! thanks, old fellow; I shan't trouble him. I am going to try digging at Muttontown, as I spoke of doing before. By the way, do you know, after you left that morning, I made the acquaintance of another of the inhabitants of that lively town. She is lively, however, if the town is not."
"She! do you say?"
"Yes, she is a fine girl, too, I can tell you. She is barmaid in one of the many hotels, and her name is Miss Jenny Needham, but she is popularly known, I found, as 'Goodall's Stringer.'"
"What on earth does that mean?" said Gilbert.
"Can't you guess? I'm sure I saw through the meaning of the phrase at once, although I had page 143never heard it before either. It means, of course, that she makes herself agreeable to those who frequent the house, and so she 'strings them on,' and induces them to spend their money there. She is very pleasant and amusing, if somewhat vulgar, and she is an uncommonly pretty girl to boot."
"You seem to be quite smitten, Arthur; but she would be hardly the kind of girl you would think of introducing to your uncle as Mrs. Leslie."
"Oh! bother my uncle, though he did send me a small remittance the other day," was Arthur's rejoinder; "but I'm not thinking of making Miss Jenny or any one else Mrs. Leslie. I'm none of your marrying sort, Gilbert. I have no doubt you will be spliced long before I am beginning to think of such things. Why, man, I can hardly keep body and soul together, so why should I think of keeping a wife? No, no! a fellow may have a bit of chaff with a girl without thinking of marrying her straight off. I'm not such a spoon as that quite. I intend putting up at Goodall's when I go over to Muttontown this time, however," continued Leslie, knocking the ashes from his pipe against his palm before entering the house for dinner.
Just then Dougal M'Lean came up to say that John Lamont had come up from the out-station unwell, and that he wanted some one to be sent page 144out there to take his place for a few days till he could go over and see the nearest doctor.
"What is the matter with Lamont?" asked Gilbert.
"She has not been well since a while, but she has not seen her since a long time, mirover, so she can hardly say," was Dougal's response.
After conferring with Dougal on the situation, Gilbert decided to send Mike to take Lamont's place for the few days, as he had the bullock dray already loaded with firewood to take over to the out-station, and both Dougal and John Lamont thought that Mike could be trusted to keep the boundary in the meantime; so Dougal departed to instruct Mike in his new duties.
"That fellow Mike is as great a cure as ever," said Gilbert as he entered the house. "Not long since Ramshorn discovered some Maori ovens with Moa bones in them, and he dug out a great many which he has taken with him to Dunedin for the Museum. We had Mike with us, helping to dig them, and I thought Mr. Ramshorn would have killed himself laughing when Mike asked quite gravely, 'An' sure, Mr. Ramshorn, d'ye tell me now that these are really Noah's bones?' "Ramshorn was not much better himself, for shortly afterwards he dug out a small fragment of the jawbone of a dog, and as he picked it up he called out, 'Look page 145here! here's some of the Moa's teeth!' and even when I laughed he did not see what I was laughing at for a few minutes."
Next day Langton and Leslie set out on an expedition to the out-hut to see how Mike was getting on, taking guns with them in the hope that they might find something to shoot in a small bush there was in one of the gullies which lay in that direction. As one of the hands on the station said he had seen some kakas there shortly before, they were not without some prospect of making a bag. They rode along talking of old scenes and events which had happened on the other side of the world.
"You'll go back and see all the old places some day, Gilbert," said Arthur, with a faint trace of sadness in his tone; "but no such luck for a poor beggar like me."
"Why not? Are you not going to make a pile at the diggings, and then you'll go home and make it up with your uncle again?"
"No fear," laughingly replied Leslie; "though I believe that would be the only way I could find favour in the old rascal's eyes. No; if I did have any such luck, I think I should enjoy crowing over the old boy, and always keeping before him the fact that all his prognostications about me had been falsified. Ha! ha! it would be a great lark to tell the old chap, in his own tone, 'That though I might page 146assist him a little, if he merited it, yet he must not rely on "expectations" of anything from me.' Wouldn't he stare a little bit? No, Gilbert; there is not much love lost between my uncle and me, and I don't think it is altogether my fault. And though, I daresay, the old boy may have meant well, yet he had such a rum way of showing it, that we never did hit it. I have sometimes half repented coming out here." he continued, "when I get disgusted with my occupations or companions, and when I think that, in process of time, I shall become as boorish as any of them, and that no one would ever suspect that any attempt had been made to drag me up as a gentleman. But there's no use crying over spilt milk, as some one has wisely observed. Here I am by force of circumstances, and I suppose I shall worry along in the same style till the end of the chapter."
"Well, Arthur, my boy," said Gilbert, "I am sorry I can't do anything for you just now, but if ever I can I will. You should rise above your surroundings, and if you would not be so careless and flighty, I am sure you could do well."
"Very likely; but what's the odds so long as you're happy?" was Arthur's reply; and putting spurs to his horse he set off at a gallop.
"Look here!" exclaimed Gilbert a little later, "if that idiot Mike has not gone and upset the dray. I page 147wonder how he managed to get it righted again! He should not have come here at all, for though this is about half a mile shorter, there is quite an easy road going round." The ground bore unmistakable indications of the dray having been upset, but so far as could be seen from the traces and fragments of firewood, no serious damage had been done.
"Hullo! Mike, what in the world have you been up to?" called Gilbert as they pulled up at the hut.
"Sure, thin, I haven't been up to nothin', for it's only the dray that's been down."
"Have you done any damage to the dray or the bullocks?" asked Gilbert.
"Niver a bit! I put half the load on last night, and brought the rest of it over this morning. I'm not long in."
"Not long in! then what about the sheep?"
"Oh! they're all right," was Mike's reply. "There they are on the front av the hill forninst ye."
Gilbert looked at the hill indicated, but could see no sheep, and said so.
"Do ye not see thim?" said Mike, pointing to the hill he had previously indicated.
"Why, you don't surely mean that you have been taking those stones for the sheep?" asked Gilbert. page 148"Have you not turned the sheep back from the boundary to-day?"
"I've been thinking these were the sheep on the hill. Donald Lamont came back here after dinner yesterday, and whin I met him going back just before the dray was capsized, he said to me that he had brought the sheep down to that hill, and that they would want looking to the first thing in the morning; and so in the morning I looked, saw thim things you say are stones, and thinks I, when I saw they stayed on the hill, Lamont must have a nice easy billet. So away I goes to bring up the rist of the firewood, and whin I comes back, I sees the sheep there still, and that's all about it."
"Oh! confound you're stupid head, Mike! Were you not told to go along the boundary and turn the sheep back if they were heading that way, the first thing in the morning?"
"I was, thin; but says I, what's the use whin they are all sitting so quiet over there? But by the holy poker, I'm wrong intirely, I suppose."
"Here comes one of old Lambton's shepherds," said Arthur Leslie, who had listened to the foregoing colloquy with a somewhat amused air.
"What's the matter with Lamont?" asked the man coming up. "He's allowed a mob of your sheep to cross the boundary, and now they're boxed with ours. I saw them from the distance, but I page 149was keeping my own part of the boundary, and was too far off to be able to stop them."
After some further conversation with the shepherd, Gilbert concluded that as the sheep were for the present irretrievably "boxed," nothing could be done; so he and Arthur, leaving Mike and the shepherd abusing one another, proceeded to the bush in quest of kakas. Striking up a spur behind the hut, they were not long in reaching the head of the wooded gully, where they expected to find the game. It bore a considerable resemblance to the waterfall gully they had visited at Big Creek, only its sides were if anything steeper.
"Here's a good place to hitch the horses," said Gilbert, dismounting on a small well-grassed plateau, studded with a few dead trees, whence the ground descended suddenly and precipitously from the very edge, as if to make amends for having been betrayed into allowing the existence of level land, though even for a few square yards only.
Selecting one of the strongest of the dead trees, Gilbert removed the bridle from Blanche and made her fast to the tree with a tether rope, which he had carried coiled round the mare's neck, and which he fastened so as to leave length enough to admit of her getting a bite of grass.
"I think I shall hobble my horse with one of the stirrup leathers," said Arthur; "he won't wander far page 150from here, and we'll soon ride him in with yours if he does."
Having seen to the horses, they then scrambled down into the bush, which they traversed hither and thither, up hill and down, without so much as seeing the feather of a kaka or of anything else they could shoot, except a wretched bush-robin, which Arthur insisted on shooting, although it came so near that Gilbert declared it was sitting on the end of his gun, and which was so close that it was actually blown to pieces.
"Poor little beggar! he's cooked," said Arthur, picking up a few feathers, and apparently already regretting having shot the bird; for he was one of those unfortunate individuals who seem always to act first and think afterwards, and who do very little of that even then; for with a philosophic "It can't be helped now," they seem to have the happy knack of banishing the subject from their minds. Lucky individuals! They are to be envied; for if they do not as a rule succeed in life, their want of success appears not to affect them in the slightest, and their griefs are as slightly rooted as those of children. They seem never to endure the dread torture of anticipated evil, which, to men of a more anxious temperament, is worse than the ill itself, nor yet even the recollection of it after it has passed.page 151
"This is no go, and we must give it best!" exclaimed Leslie, seating himself on a half-fallen tree. "I think it's time to cry 'Smoke oh!' and then we'll go up, for I'm full on this shooting racket."
"You are an adept at slang, Arthur, and no mistake," said Gilbert, seating himself beside his companion.
"And yet a fellow told me the other day, he could tell at once that I had not been long in the country, or, as he phrased it, 'that I had not got the lime-juice out of me yet;' so it can't be colonial slang that I speak."
"Well, I don't know that colonials are worse than other people for speaking slang, but they have, of course, many words and phrases peculiar to themselves."
When they emerged from the bush a short time afterwards, they were surprised to see that Blanche had disappeared, and that Arthur's horse was alone on the little plateau.
"She must have been frightened by the shot, and broken her tether rope," said Gilbert; "it is a good thing that your moke has not gone off too. She can't be very far yet. But see here!" he exclaimed, "she has dragged the tree with her right up by the roots. Who could have thought that the tree would have given way like that?"page 152
"But where can the mare be gone?" asked Leslie.
They followed the track made by the dragging of the tree through the grass for a few yards to the edge of the plateau, and there found the tree with the rope still on it, held fast by two others which grew on the very verge of the precipitous gully, and on looking down they saw, to their astonishment and grief, Blanche suspended by the tether rope, and apparently strangled, lying on her side below them. Arthur, without a moment's delay, cut the rope, which allowed the mare to slide down a little way farther, when her progress was stopped by the trees and bushes. Gilbert sprang down to her and cut the rope from her neck; but it was no use, for she was undoubtedly dead, hanged by her own tether rope. She must have been startled by the shot, and on her springing back the tree had given way and fallen, which must have added to her fright, and caused her to back over the edge of the gully at a place where the ground was too steep to allow of her keeping her footing properly, so that when the loosened tree caught in the others above, the poor brute had been unable to climb again to the level ground. The mare was thus left suspended in such a way that her weight caused the rope to choke her, and, after ineffectually struggling for awhile, as evinced by the marks on the page 153ground, she had succumbed to the suffocation arising from the pressure of the tether rope.
"If we had only come up out of the bush at once," said poor Gilbert, looking very woebegone, "instead of sitting yarning on that old log!"
"Well," said Arthur, "how could we have known that the confounded old tree would not hold? and it can't be altered now. Poor Blanche! she was a nice little mare, and her being dead means the loss of a few pounds to you."
Putting both saddles on Arthur's horse, they trudged wearily homewards, Gilbert looking all the way particularly crestfallen and melancholy, the only conversation he indulged in being to recount the virtues of his lost mare and to bemoan her death.