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Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter XIII. — A Midnight Adventure

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Chapter XIII.
A Midnight Adventure .

"For this relief much thanks."

Shakespeare .

The great event of the year was past. The wool was all safely baled and despatched by waggon to Dunedin, whence it would be speedily shipped to the world's market, London.

Even Mr. Ramshorn, though he had gone through not a few "shearings," was thoroughly glad when it was over; and as for Gilbert, although no very heavy work fell on his shoulders, he was very tired of the shearing before it was over.

Mr. Ramshorn intimated that he was going to see a neighbouring runholder who had spoken about buying some sheep, and he added casually that he thought he would call in at Pakeloa on his way to see if Harry Ewart was gone, as he wished to see him if possible before he left. What a convenient thing it is when a girl has a brother who can be made an excuse for numerous visits to her home! Ramshorn liked Harry Ewart very well, page 181and might have visited Pakeloa to bid him good-bye even if he had been sisterless; but if he liked Harry, he loved Ottalie, and yet with a faltering timidity which induced him to attempt to cloak the object of his visits to the Ewarts even from himself, and therefore his liking for Harry was a convenient excuse for him.

But it is not brothers only who are thus of use, for Nellie Cameron had made a successful use of her supposed affection for Ottalie, which was far less genuine than that Mr. Ramshorn had for Harry. A tendency to matrimony is said to be a contagious disorder, and one engagement is frequently followed by others in the same circle. This perhaps had something to do with Mr. Ramshorn's half-formed resolve that he would woo, and endeavour to win, Ottalie Ewart for his wife. He had saved a little money since he became manager at Waitaruna, and he had made one or two fortunate speculations which had increased his little capital, and of this he had been induced to invest the greater part in a likely looking quartz mine, which promised to turn out something very good. His spirits were therefore elated somewhat, and he thought that the tide of fortune, which had long ebbed from him, had now turned, and would flow again all the stronger because of its lengthened retrogression. When he thought about his former ideas on the subject of page 182marriage, he concluded that perhaps he had been a little Quixotic; but now that Harry Ewart's own fate was sealed, he would probably be able to give sound advice on such a subject, and Mr. Ramshorn resolved to consult him. He took courage, too, from the fact that Ottalie had not shown any difference in her manner towards him in consequence of what he had said while Gilbert Langton was lying stunned after the adventure with the madman. "If," thought he, "she had been inclined to resent my conduct on that occasion, she would have indicated it in some way when I next met her; but she made no difference, and has been as friendly as before." His very jealousy of Gilbert, he thought, showed how foolish and fearful he had been; for if the manager could not marry the fair Ottalie, how could Gilbert the cadet think of doing so? Thus did Mr. Ramshorn commune with himself as he smoked his pipe after breakfast on the verandah on the morning of the day he mentioned to Gilbert his intention of going to see about the sale of the sheep.

He said he would leave next morning, and as he had previously spoken to Langton about his taking a couple of the horses to Muttontown to be shod, the manager said Gilbert had better start at once, so as to be back as soon as possible, that they might not both be away from the station for long.

Gilbert accordingly, so soon as the horses were page 183got in, set out for Muttontown, where he arrived in the course of the afternoon, but too late to allow of his accomplishing his errand that day. He had therefore to take up his quarters at his old abode, "The All Nations Hotel," which was fortunately quieter than on the occasion of his previous visit. The visitors by whose presence he was honoured during the evening were of the upper eight of the place; the "paper-collared swells" did not number ten; for when the warden, the receiver of gold revenue, the doctor, the inspector of police, and the four "bankers" were enumerated, the extent of the upper crust of society in Muttontown was ascertained.

Langton spent the greater part of the afternoon in knocking the ivory balls about in the billiard-room in company with one of the bankers; but in the evening, when they purposed renewing the contest, they found the table already occupied by some of the miners, and the atmosphere of the billiard-room so filled with tobacco smoke that they could hardly see the men who were sitting round the room blowing "clouds." A game of euchre in the dining-room was therefore resorted to as a pastime, and by and by the doctor and one or two others dropped in.

"There are several of the 'Rip and Tear Company's' men having a jollification down at Goodall's to-night," remarked the doctor. "I see that young fellow Leslie is in the crowd."

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"Is he?" said Gilbert's partner, the banker.

"I fancy he is getting a little too fond of his beer."

"Well, I don't know," replied the doctor. "I don't know that he is any worse or better in that way than the rest of us. I think he is spooney on the 'Stringer,' that is what I think keeps him hanging round there so much."

Langton had been paying more attention to his game, at which he was only a novice, than to the conversation, but hearing the names of Leslie and the "Stringer" coupled in this way roused his attention.

"Who do you say is spooney on the 'Stringer'?" he asked.

"A young fellow, Leslie, who came here not long since, and who works in the 'Rip and Tear' claim. He is rather a pleasant, gentlemanly fellow. Have you come across him?" asked the doctor.

"I fancy," was Gilbert's reply, "that I know him very well. Is his name Arthur Leslie?"

"I should not wonder; but he's the only Leslie I know about here, so no doubt it's the man you know. He was trying to make another new comer 'shout' as I passed, coming up here, but seemingly the Irishman did not see it, for he kept saying, 'Bejabers, Mr. Leslie, and it's no money I have at all at all, nor toime neither, for I am just going to tether me horse, so I am.'"

"Why, I should not wonder if that was Mike page 185Donovan," exclaimed Langton. "He was cook's mate on the ship I came out in, and has since been on the station," continued Gilbert, who soon had them all laughing at some of Mike's eccentricities.

"Yes," said the police inspector, "a real Irish Irishman is as amusing a fellow as you will meet in a day's march. I've seen lots of them in the force, but though I've laughed at some of their sayings often enough, yet I never can remember them. But for all their 'bulls,' they are generally smart men."

"I don't think you need speak of 'bulls,' Pearson," said one of the others, "for I don't know what you can call it but a 'bull' to speak of an Irish Irishman, and it differs from an Irish Irishman's 'bull' in that it is one which is not amusing."

"Now, then, what are you sneering at?" asked Pearson. And apparently to divert the personal turn the conversation was taking he said, "I'll tell you one of those absurd things I have heard an Irish trooper say, and it was in reference to one of the most extraordinary narrow escapes I ever saw in my life. It was in the early days of the diggings, on the other side, when there was some sticking-up going on, that we were after a noted bushranger, who had bailed up a good many in the Bullarook forest shortly before. The gang had been scattered, and this trooper and I came up with 'Red Peter,' one of the worst of page 186them. He was an 'old hand,' and a very desperate fellow. I don't know what his little game was, whether he thought we might not know him or what, but he kept on the track in front of us for a good bit, going quite quietly, and then he turned off into the bush. When we saw he was trying to give us the slip we rode after him, but he did not hurry, and when we got near enough we challenged him; but as soon as we did that he went off with a bound. The trooper, who was first, called out, 'Stand, ye divil, or I'll fire,' and at the same moment he let drive at the bushranger with his carbine. As luck would have it, the ball struck a gum-sucker just a yard or two behind the man's back. It was a small sapling, not an inch thick, and it was cut through by the bullet; but it was enough to turn it off, and save the bushranger from the gallows, which he came to before the year was out. The trooper was greatly surprised when he saw the man disappear through the trees unhurt, and he said, 'Arrah, if that confounded tree hadn't come in the road of the bullet, or if the bullet had gone out of the way of the tree, 'Red Peter' would have repented he was ever born, for he would not have lived to be sorry for it.'"

"Well, Mr. Pearson," said Gilbert, "I think I can understand now what you mean by an Irish Irishman. Was there ever much of the 'sticking-up business,' as you call it, in this country?"

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"Oh! nothing to speak of. This country's not adapted for it. What with the want of timber and difficulty in getting away, bushrangers would have a hard time of it here. There were a few cases, but most of the force here were from the other side, and they knew all the bad characters, and kept a very sharp lookout on them."

"You must have had some strange experiences, I should say, Mr. Pearson," continued Gilbert.

"Yes, I have seen some queer things now and again. Talking of sticking-up, now, I remember once, over in Australia, finding a couple of fellows just in the nick of time to save their lives. What took me off the track I don't remember now, but it was mere accident my leaving it. Not far in the bush I came on two men bailed up, and each tied to a tree. The ruffians had tied them with their hands behind them round the trees, and they had also put a strap round each of their necks, and passed them also round the trees. One of the men was much worse than the other; his head had fallen forwards, and he was insensible. It was a great marvel that he was not choked. His neck was fearfully swelled, and if I had been a little later in finding them, he would have been a gone coon. The other was not in quite so bad a state, but he was bad enough, for he could not speak till some time after he had had a drink. They had been bailed up for some three or page 188four days, and without a drop to drink or anything to eat all the time. The bushrangers had taken from them a good bit of gold, and left them, no doubt thinking they would be heard by some one passing along the road; but though they had cooeed till they were both hoarse, they had not attracted any one. The fellow who was still sensible said that the worst part of the whole time was when he heard me close by in the bush, and yet he could not make a cry to call my attention, and he was in an agony in case I should not see them. I had to leave them both where they were, and get some help from a shanty that was on the roadside some miles off, before I could manage to get them along at all. But I must be getting away to the camp; so let's have a nightcap, and then I'm off to turn in."

Gilbert also "turned in" when the inspector left, but as some of the others still remained talking, and he could hear every word as he lay in bed, he could not go to sleep. By and by the others all departed, and the only sounds to be heard were the click of the billiard balls, now distinctly audible in the quietened house, and the laughter and merriment from Goodall's hotel down the street; but after a time even these noises were silenced, but still Gilbert lay awake.

Whether it was the effect of the inspector's "nightcap," a luxury to which he was unaccustomed, or page 189from some other cause, he could not tell, but sleep he could not. His thoughts turned like a needle to the pole towards her who proved a loadstone to him, Ottalie Ewart. He wondered if Mr. Ramshorn was at Pakeloa. Perhaps he had been making love to Ottalie—and she? Would she repel his advances, or no? He knew not what to think. Perhaps at that moment Ottalie might be lying awake thinking of the promise she had given to Mr. Ramshorn. Poor Gilbert! the idea did not add to the comfort of a sleepless pillow; but had he been a clairvoyant, he would have been saved from distressing thoughts, for he would have seen Mr. Ramshorn at Pakeloa indeed, but would have known that Ottalie, to the manager's chagrin, had left the day before for Dunedin to assist Nellie in getting her trousseau.

Gilbert, however, knew naught of this as he lay hot, sleepless, and uncomfortable, both in mind and body, in bed at Muttontown. The current of his thoughts was changed by his imagining he heard some one calling. He raised his head to listen and heard nothing, but just as he lay down again, the cry was repeated; he was sure of it this time. He sat up in bed and listened. Once more he heard it. It came from some distance, and seemed to be the cry of some one in distress.

He thought of going to ascertain the cause, but then page 190the idea suggested itself, that perhaps it was only some drunken fellow calling out; but again, and yet again, the cry was repeated, and each time it sounded as though some one was calling for help, Gilbert rose and hurriedly dressed, and then the idea occurred to him, that perhaps it was a dodge to get some one out to a lonely place, and then stick them up; or it might be his former foe the madman. But these suppositions he dismissed as absurd, yet still he felt a little nervous in spite of himself as he tried to open the door leading to the bar, but found it was locked, and all exit by the front was barred. He then tried the back of the house, and groping his way through the kitchen, he gained the outer air by the back-door. He now heard the cry more distinctly; it was a "cooee," and came from a direction where he knew there were some workings. He set off at a sharp pace, guided by the sound, but he had soon to slacken his speed, for the night was very dark and the ground rough. Now and again he stopped and gave utterance to a loud "cooee," which was always answered, and by this means he guided his footsteps. At length, when he heard from the last cooee that he was near the man who had been crying, he called out, "Where are you? What do you want?" "Here I am," answered the voice from below where he stood;" but take care, or you'll fall to."

Thus admonished, Gilbert cautiously groped his page 191way, till he came to what appeared to be the edge of a precipice.

"Are you there?" he called.

The reply came from no very great distance off. "Yes; but for Heaven's sake look where you go. I have fallen over that face and broken my leg, and I can't move."

"How can I get down?" asked Gilbert.

"Go back the way you came for a bit, till you reach the foot of the spur, and then follow up the gully," said the man; "but go cautiously, for any sake."

Gilbert did as he was directed, and soon reached the helpless miner, whom he found in a sorry plight, sitting unable to move, with one of his legs doubled right under him. Langton tried to raise the unfortunate man, but found he was unable to do so easily by himself, and the poor fellow groaned with the pain of this attempt to move him.

"I must go for assistance," said Gilbert. "Is there any one who lives nearer than the township?"

"Yes, there are some men live a little way from here in that direction, but the ground is all cut up with old tail-races between this and that; besides, they must all be either dead or drunk, for I cooeed loud enough to waken the dead for I don't know how long, and none of them ever stirred."

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"I'll go and see if I can find some one," said Gilbert, setting out in the direction indicated.

He fell once or twice, but fortunately only over a heap of stones or "tailings," and he suffered no great harm. As soon as he approached the huts he sought, three or four large dogs began to bay furiously. Gilbert was afraid to advance closer, for many diggers keep savage dogs, and the sound of the voices of those he heard spoke to considerable bulk of body. He called out lustily once or twice, but the dogs only barked the louder. Presently, however, he heard a gruff voice swear in a sleepy kind of way at the barking dogs. "Hullo!" shouted Gilbert, "come and help a man with a broken leg."

"What's that you say?" was asked by the owner of the gruff voice in a less sleepy tone than he had used to the dogs.

"A man with a broken leg," was Gilbert's reply.

The only answer was the noise of striking a match, and presently Gilbert saw the light shining through the canvas gable of the erection, which was half tent, half hut; then the door opened, and a sleepy looking man stood in the doorway, sheltering a candle with his hand while he peered into the darkness. The situation was soon explained, and the owner of the hut lost no time in pulling on his boots and rousing his mates. Provided with a couple of page 193lanterns, formed by knocking the bottom out of a clear bottle and putting a candle in the neck, they were soon on their way to the injured man.

He was lifted carefully on to the back of one of the party, and, as they proceeded slowly to the township, he explained how he had been engaged, only the preceding day, to look after the water in the "Rise and Shine Company's" claim at night, and how in proceeding to his work he had, through want of a thorough acquaintance with the locality, mistaken the way and fallen over the face of some abandoned workings, a distance of some fifteen or twenty feet, and how, though he had been calling out for a couple of hours, no one heard him, or, if they had, had not paid any attention. They carried him to one of the hotels and sent for the doctor, and as he could render no more service, Gilbert retired once more to his couch, and this time to sleep.